On his latest album, Lookout for Hope, Jerry Douglas continues to explore the boundaries of new acoustic music with a number of well-known guests, including mandolinist Sam Bush, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and guitarist Bryan Sutton. The material runs the gauntlet from the gentler side of the Allman Brothers to the post-bop of guitarist Bill Frisell (whose composition provides the album’s title) to a half dozen self-penned tunes. The arrangements vary from a bare bones approach — just dobro — to fuller ones that utilize drums and saxophone. Two pieces include vocals, one by Maura O’Connell and one by James Taylor. While the results are pleasing to the ears and will no doubt be pleasing to Douglas’ many fans, the overall recording seems somewhat tepid and conservative compared to 1998’s Restless on the Farm. The failings of Lookout for Hope also offer a good backdrop to understand some of the pitfalls of new acoustic music.
Douglas opens with Duane Allman’s “Little Martha”, as charming a piece as has ever been written for an acoustic instrument. Bassist Barry Bales joins in, and while this duo brings nothing new to the instrumental, it’s nonetheless a charming version. “Little Martha” has a thing or two in common with “Monkey Let the Hogs Out,” a minute long ditty that Douglas performs on a Kona guitar, and “Senia’s Lament”, a five-minute meditation conveyed by a delicate blend of dobro, bass, and percussion. But when both are compared to a jewel like “Little Martha”, something is evidently missing. Though “pretty”, these self-penned pieces lack the kind of individual structure-melody, hooks, etc.-that makes the Allman piece so memorable.
This lack of distinction is a reoccurring problem on Lookout for Hope, and the same quality of vagueness plagues a number of new acoustic writers. Changes in tempo or the presence of a vocal define a piece, not subtleties of composition. While both Rob Ickes’ What It Is and Chris Thile’s Not All Who Wonder Are Lost are enjoyable, one can listen to them multiple times and never recall specific tunes. One wishes that these musicians, who are virtuosos on their chosen instrument, did not also feel the burden to write.
This lack of individuality, however, doesn’t mar every new acoustic album. Douglas wrote several keepers for 1998’s Restless on the Farm, an eclectic album that exudes a certain sense of joy that brings to mind early Grisman and Rice albums. The rhythm that compels “Turkish Taffee” makes it a standout, but just as important is Douglas’ decision to play lap steel as though it were an electric guitar. A similar approach-a carefully written composition and innovative arrangement-also informs “Passing the Bar” and “Takarasaka”. Another important difference between this album and Lookout for Hope lies in the variety of arrangements. Where as Restless on the Farm intermingled dissimilar set-ups from track to track, much of Lookout for Hope plays it safe by sticking to a more uniform production. (Although arrangements vary quite a bit on Lookout for Hope, the choice of instruments are stylistically similar and designed for a smooth, overall blend.) Whereas the first approach highlights the individual quality of each piece, the latter approach downplays it.
One fears that Douglas’ choice material leans too heavily to the rarefied air of post-bop jazz. This is especially true of Bill Frisell’s “Lookout for Hope”, a meandering mess that clocks in at ten minutes. The piece weaves in and out like a half-baked Grateful Dead jam, and one half-expects the band to break into “That’s It for the Other One” at any moment. Psychograss recorded an equally disheveled version of “3rd Stone from the Sun” several years back, but the band’s “just for the hell of it style”, it’s sense of fun, made the wild ride joyful. While the skill of everyone involved on Lookout for Hope is obvious, a sense of joy and excitement are missing. Somewhere in all of this artiness Douglas has lost the common touch that worked so well for him on past efforts.