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Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Reviews: E.Ryan Goodman & The Fierce And The Dead

E. Ryan Goodman - Halves (acoustic/ experimental)
Lone Lamp 2, 2010, CD album, 43m 43s, $12

Like his earlier Under The Lamp, Goodman packages this album in a beautifully printed, hand made, numbered, limited edition card sleeve. Somehow this strikes a balance between the extremely personal, unique and specific nature of the recordings, and the infinitely reproducible nature of recorded music.
Poetry has been defined as a way of expressing verbal meanings that can’t be expressed in any other way: a meaningful poem can never be effectively paraphrased, and the meanings it contains are by definition not meanings that can be expressed directly, but must be approached obliquely through metaphor, image, and a concern for the sounds of language. So it is with certain musical meanings.
Goodman has things to say that cannot be directly addressed through the established vocabularies of widely understood musical languages. By remaking the grammar in which his musemes are combined, and by expanding his lexicon to include a broader palette of sounds (although all still generated through the use of his acoustic guitar), he succeeds in sneaking up on them in a way that we can share in, if we care to.
This album’s sixteen compositions all embody, or more specifically are, the traces of improvisations, but for the most part those direct, in-the-moment expressions have been ordered, and their materials organised: this makes Goodman’s meanings more mediated than they seemed on his previous release, but this does not necessarily leave us with any less to do as listeners, as his mediations, to my ears, take the form of a more deliberate complexity.
There’s nothing here (so far as I can tell) except one man and his acoustic guitar: I suspect most people will either listen to this closely, or not at all, so Goodman is subjecting himself to a great deal of scrutiny, without hiding behind a dazzling technique or elaborate compositional strategies. It’s a pretty courageous artistic practice, but one that pays dividends.
He does not eschew a sense of drama: the album opens with a very striking figure, of rapidly picked, heavily muted upper register notes that recall a music box or mbira, and give way to a slow and contemplative melodic musing. ‘Southward’ the second track, is entirely recognisable as a solo folk guitar piece, although it ends rather soon, and has a strong element of minimalism with its consistent rhythmic repetitions. Next, ‘The Wild Badger’ echoes Goodman’s earlier work, with its arrhythmia and staccato muting; ‘Through Bramble’ and ‘’Round The Bend’ are built around microtonality; ‘Monk’s Corner’ echoes the angular swing phrasing of its eponymous subject. 
These pieces stand alone to a greater extent than the recordings collected on Under The Lamp, and although each generally focusses on a single idea, it is explored in greater depth than on the earlier work. The feelings engendered by the music are more varied, and often more readily accessible, with several tunes that are uncomplicatedly pleasing pieces of guitar playing: but still, there is a refusal to milk the atmospheres that are evoked. Each piece presents its meaning, its observation or evocation, in the manner of a haiku, and once it has been clearly stated, Goodman has the discipline to move on. 
Much of the guitar playing on this album is very skilled and measured, and the material very pretty, but I feel I’d be doing the artist a disservice if I focussed on that in recommending this to you. The real strength of this recording is in the specificity and clarity of its musical meanings, which, it is very plain from listening, have been obtained at the cost of a great deal of thought, effort and ruthless self-editing.

E. Ryan Goodman - Under The Lamp (acoustic/ experimental)
Lone Lamp 1, 2008, CD album, 43m 43s, $8

It’s a commonplace to describe the sound of stringed instruments in terms of wood: the archetypal double bass sound is ‘woody’; Don Cherry described the sound of Pepe Habichuela’s flamenco guitar as being like ‘a tree crying’. Evocative, and even apposite as these characterisations may be, I sometimes wonder what happened to the metal and the gut or nylon: the strings are just as much a part of the sound as, if not more than, the body of the instrument.
I took this album for a stomp round the countryside, which is how I like to get acquainted with music I’m reviewing, and found myself back home, watching the crystalline spring sunlight detailing the cracks and fissures in the exposed end of an oak beam, as I listened to ‘Mudskirts’: it seemed to fit, the ancient, constantly weathering wood and the static but moving sound of Goodman’s guitar meditation. This music has the clarity of a bright spring morning, and the bite of its still cold air, and yes, it has the sound of wood, but Goodman is not afraid to emphasise the sound of metal as well.
He’s not given to playing percussion on the body of his guitar, but he takes an approach to the instrument (and to recording) that foregrounds its physicality: we hear his hands moving against the strings, the physical attack (especially as he sometimes mutes the strings completely), the reverberation of transients from within the body, and the strings buzzing and rattling against the frets. This is the sound of metal wires stretched against a wooden box, frequently presented in the same bald way that some abstract expressionists presented paint on canvas, although there are moments when the instrumental mechanism is more conventionally elided, as in ‘Ditty’.
The album consists of seventeen short solo guitar pieces, and three longer ones; they are mostly improvisations. They frequently contain bits of familiar vocabularies, although they also employ free, dissonant, microtonal and arrhythmic elements, and they are formally ‘through-improvised’ for the most part, or indeed consist of a single passage. An idea is stated, and developed sufficiently to establish it as more than an aleatory event, but no further.
The experience of listening is involving, and ranges from the serene, and calmly atmospheric, to the jarring and challenging, as when tonality is abandoned and string noise comes to the foreground. Both of these sensations are contextualised in the serial, multiple nature of the work, and the overall effect is a cyclical one, a pendulum that swings between thinking and feeling, as varied atmospheres are established which demand a more than simply visceral engagement. This is not easy music: improvisations of this sort demand work on the part of the listener, to engage with and understand them, but to perform and record in this way is to expose a personal expression in the rawest form imaginable, and the listener’s reward is a very human and personal kernel of meaning to be disclosed at the centre of each piece.

The Fierce And The Dead - 10 x 10 (post-rock)
Spencer Park, 20011, DD single, 7m 37s, £name your price

These two tunes, ‘10x10’ and the B-side, ‘Foreign Languages’ are full of driving, insistent rhythm. It’s not exactly funky, on the whole, although syncopation is judiciously applied: it’s more about forward motion than about booty shaking, more about travel than dancing.
The first impression is of simple structures and sonic sophistication, but closer listening reveals carefully crafted musical materials, with bass melodies and guitar grooves that are very much bespoke. The frame is bass guitar and drums, and the rest of the building is guitar, with some supportive synthesizer I guess, although anything’s possible with a well stocked pedal board.
The bass tone in ‘Foreign Languages’ is so harshly distorted that the track seems positively heavy until the upper registers are filled out with spatial, ambient sounds, but even in ‘10x10’ it has some pleasing grit, that reinforces the propulsive feeling of the engine room. Meanwhile, on the upper deck, the guitar purveys a sequence of ideas, with formal sections defined by a repeated motif or texture, rather than imitating the strophic repetitions of a vocal song.
This music is carefully crafted, evidently the product of some close, intelligent listening, as well as some solid instrumental skills and technical savvy. As with TFATD’s earlier EP, Part 1, and much of guitarist Matt Stevens’ solo work, the band eschews the conventional, developmentally melodic approach to producing narrative and drama, in favour of the big sweep of their textures and dynamics. It is a testament to their creativity, and attention to detail, that they keep the attention, and satisfy the ear in the way that they do: this is serious music, with a complex artistic agenda, but it is also an aesthetic feast, and a very welcoming and entertaining listen.

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