As a general rule, I tend to think that my complete lack of musical ability hasn’t been too much of a handicap to a career as a critic. Unburdened by doomed musical projects – or, indeed, talent – it means I can avoid judging the success of artists against any creative failures of my own.
Sometimes, though, it does feel as if I could do with a little more technical insight. Tackling the contemplative horde of solo guitarists who’ve emerged in the last decade is a good case in point. I’m pretty sure a fair few of these folk/avant-garde types sound like John Fahey, and occasionally I’ll risk a fractionally more obscure reference from the same ‘60s milieu; Robbie Basho, Sandy Bull, maybe even Peter Walker. Most of these records work very well as a kind of downhome ambient music, and quite a few of them – notably those by James Blackshaw and the late Jack Rose, both of whom I’ve written about here in the past – have become personal touchstones; serene, transcendent, aesthetically elevating even as they retain a very human earthiness.
But working through this month’s batch, including a lovely new single by Blackshaw (“Holly”/“Boo Forever”, on the Important label), another perspective presents itself. Nathan Salsburg is a folklorist (for the Alan Lomax Archive, among other places), based in Louisville, who has two strong records pending: “Avo”, a duet set with a British guitarist called James Elkington (on Tompkins Square); and his own Affirmed (on No Quarter). “Affirmed” comes with an elegantly polemical press release penned by MC Taylor, whose own wonderful new album as Hiss Golden Messenger is due in November.
Taylor concedes that comparisons between Salsburg and John Fahey are inevitable, mostly down to a “maverick aesthetic”, then takes a learned shot at most Fahey disciples, indicting “A million joyless ragas by pickers that learned the wrong lesson.”
“It’s easy to write a song in a minor key and play it sad,” Taylor continues, “but so much harder—though truer to life, I reckon—to play blue in a major key.” It’s an interesting point, and one made from a position of knowledge very different to my own. Am I being drawn to an off-the-peg melancholy atmosphere, rather than engaging with these records on a more insightful level, and possibly dismissing some of them as a consequence?
Listening to Salsburg’s “Affirmed” again, its poignant jauntiness is certainly affecting. Nevertheless, my favourite solo guitar record this month is an overtly darker beast. Dean McPhee lives in West Yorkshire, plays electric guitar rather than acoustic, and doesn’t display much of an obvious debt to the Takoma School. Like his “Brown Bear” EP from last year, parts of McPhee’s debut album, “Son Of The Black Peace” (on Blast First Petite) sound vaguely like a solemn, reverberant cross between post-rock and the British folk revival; a hybrid of John Renbourn and Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, perhaps?
Mostly, though, McPhee’s slowly unfurling compositions recall those of Vini Reilly; heavy with delay, slow ripple and rain on windowpane. I’m not sure exactly what he’s doing and, for all I know, “Son Of The Black Peace” might be a confection built from rudimentary skills and cheaply emotive musical shortcuts. But I guess minimal instrumental music depends on making a gentle emotional connection, and if that personal connection happens, then how it was made – how it was conceived – is more or less irrelevant.