Experimental guitar master Loren Connors and post-rock godfather David Grubbs recorded Arborvitae, a five-song suite and the duo’s only collaboration in a commercial studio, for the Swedish label Hapna many eons ago – in 2003, George W. Bush’s first term, in fact. It was, in no short order, a true revelation – capturing Connors at his ghostliest and most affecting and positioning Grubbs somewhere between the skeletal repetitions of 1996’s Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange and his frighteningly emotive but understated masterwork, Creep Mission, from 2017.
For students of David Grubbs, it was nothing shy of a miracle. Grubbs’ mellifluous guitar work often had hinted at a young, ambitious Mazzacane Connors. On the Hapna CD-only EP, Grubbs accompanies Connors’ bluesy asides with aching piano requia and sparse – but far, far from leaden – guitar work of his own trademark and design. Well, now, American listeners can rejoice. Arborvitae has received a US release – and on vinyl, no less! – from the fine folks at Improved Sequence. And a wider audience can celebrate its special brand of muted majesty.
The instrumental EP opens with two pieces where Grubbs’ piano is eerie in its affectation, “Blossom Time” and the title track. Though “Blossom Time” is far from slight – it runs some four minutes and change – its combination of mournful piano and spare phantom-blues guitar accents is overshadowed by the title track, a real gem that passes the ten-minute mark and could have winded along for several minutes (or days) further. It’s unclear how “improvised” some of the pieces, like the title track, really are; the record’s credits cite only Grubbs’ publishing moniker, and this could indicate he came in with some partially formed works. Who knows? Connors and Grubbs performed together live shortly before the NYC recording session that yielded Arborvitae and these moments could stem, too, from that evening.
But the duo keep the music feeling fresh and dewy as if they were experiencing and reflecting upon every refrain or turn of phrase at the same time as the listener – the best kind of improvised work. About seven minutes into the title track, Connors’ guitar acts up, and we hear all brands of noise and incantation from his amplifier, followed by what could be a brief experiment on the wah-wah pedal of all things. (You can comment here on the excitement and rarity of hearing some of this from Connors in a commercial studio setting.) It’s an exciting departure – and an unexpected one – and, again, it keeps listeners tipping along through the weeds on their toes.
On the incredible, slow-burn “Ghost of Exquisite” – a sly nod at the title of Gastr del Sol’s “Our Exquisite Replica of ‘Eternity’” ? – Grubbs switches to guitar, and, here, the delights take a different form with both men locking horns, as it were. Grubbs often provides the track its backbone, its diegetic heft, and Connors its adornment, though both players seem to, at times, be making reference to or mirroring what the other is playing. About five minutes into the 7:25-running song, Grubbs’ guitar refrains strike a note of discord and lament, and Connors does a magnificent job in the shifting terrain, at one point letting out a clattering, distorted aside that is biting yet effective.
“Hemlock Path”, the fourth track, hints in its tone and hammers on to Grubbs’ “Buried in the Wall,” from his 1998 solo LP The Thicket. Here, though, there is no honey-dripped voice accompanying the flickers of undistorted electric guitar. The bluesy scales – scaffolding, really – of the aforementioned song are bypassed in favor of a kind of leisurely, occasionally off-time stroll through reflective guitar – and its magic works wonders. Connors, again, comes up with all sorts of strange, sometimes hyperbolic sounds to accent Grubbs’ guitar narrative, and this keeps the piece from wandering too far off its path, as it were. Blues subtitled no sense of scale, indeed.
The record closes with a bit of a surprise, “The Highest Point in Brooklyn”, a reference to their live performance in that borough, where Connors’ guitar seems to beckon the Apocalypse (for good measure), and Grubbs’ piano has to make sense of some of the damage done. It comes into the frame as a resolute bit of mythologizing about the NYC borough, perhaps – though far from literally. These guys are too clever and too nuanced for that. The piece, and the record, end quickly before anyone can dream of a curtain call and after Connors and Grubbs already have departed the studio.
As a Connors work, it is far from the best or most Phoenix-like – that distinction typically goes to his In Pittsburgh. But he is expressive to a T using as few strokes of the brush and as few notes as possible. At times, he feels like his guitar short-hand is translating an opus like “The Odyssey” into haiku. For Grubbs, this sounds transformative. The Louisville-born, Brooklyn-based avant-art musician has an increasingly impressive curricula vitae, both inside the academic world as well as a “performer” proper.
But Arborvitae, some 17 or 18 years after its initial release, is still striking, still mesmerizing. Some canon-izer can talk about the student learning from the master or where Kath Bloom or Jim O’Rourke fit into all of these knotted narratives. There’s plenty of fodder for writers and daydreamers here. In short, though, Arborvitae is a beautiful and vexing little record that is aging like fine Kentucky bourbon. May we return in another 18 years and still reckon with its glories!