Another worthwhile entry in Tompkins Square’s ongoing archeology of unheralded outsider artists, Armstrong’s catchy, new age-inflected playing offers solace for late nights.
Tompkins Square is one of the premier labels dedicated to bringing worthwhile lost, forgotten, and/or never found artists into the digital age. The label is a labor of love for founder Josh Rosenthal, whose part-memoir, part-treatise The Record Store of the Mind is worthwhile reading for like-minded music fans; that is, those with a proclivity for odd old-time records, stubbornly iconoclastic artists, and passionate amateurs. If you've ever taken picked up a strange, evocative record from a flea market or thrift store because, though unheard, it spoke to you, then Tompkins Square is your kind of record label.
Its Imaginational Anthem series, in particular, has introduced listeners to a surprising array of talented fringe masters of the primitive guitar. It is on the series' eighth volume, The Private Press, that most listeners would have first encountered Tom Armstrong, whose self-produced and released 1987 album, The Sky Is an Empty Eye, is the latest among Rosenthal's interesting and worthwhile excavations. Prior to this -- and by Armstrong's own account -- the only people who had heard the album outside of friends and family were those "drunken patrons at a bar in Pinos Altos, New Mexico" to whom he handed copies during open-mic nights in the late 1980s.
Recorded on a four-track, the mostly instrumental album combines elements of '70s prog rock and the decade's own New Age sensibility to create an engaging late-night chill record. Opener "White Pines" features plucked harmonics that, combined with circular strumming, creates a rolling soundscape. Bright and propulsive, it evokes comparisons to William Ackerman's nimble and emotive playing. A number of Armstrong's more airy compositions collected here, like "Dream Waltz" or "Keller", could have found a comfortable home among the works Ackerman was recording in the mid-'80s for his Windham Hill label. But Armstrong isn't content to remain in one sonic space for long. For instance, "The Thing" finds him playing a noisy, distorted blues guitar riff that's too unmannerly for the genre that Ackerman's label came to define. Similarly, the album's title track, though lone with vocals, is a bluesy, psychedelic reflection that's smartly placed at the album's center point. If the record represents a sort of trip, then this is the journey's peak, and what follows is a gentle coming down.
Sadly, not everything here is fully formed. "Mama's Baby" is a brief exercise in ragtime, pleasant but underdeveloped. At the very least, it seems like it should be part of something larger. Similarly,
"Bebop" references another genre without adding many surprises, yet it still manages to lose its focus inside of its two minutes of extrapolation. Luckily, "Thunder Clouds", which follows these cuts and closes the album, is one of the strongest aural musings Armstrong has to offer. Ponderous without being passive, it floats in heavy like its namesake but arrives with an unexpected delicateness. In particular, Armstrong's nimble work on the upper strings evokes the individuality of raindrops amidst a wash of sound.
Armstrong's psychedelic-tinged new age playing adds space and depth to these sonic fragments (so much so that the tracks can seem longer than they are, in a good way), and it's a surprise when the whole of the record passes by in so brief a space (just 30 minutes). Rosenthal's Tomkins Square remains a trusted outpost for outsider art of high quality, and, 30 years on, Armstrong's lone recording should find many appreciative, and sober, listeners.