every new release now, Bill Frisell seems to delve deeper and
farther back into the historical recesses of the American musical
psyche, discovering there forgotten or half remembered sounds
or archetypal phrasings that resonate deep within the human experience.
This is music that you feel you have always known and yet have
never heard before, like some treasured memory of an event that
hasn't happened yet.
And yet within this given framework of familiar
old country, blues and folk melodies it is the sheer brilliance
of the playing that etches itself on the memory. Brilliance in
two senses: the beauty of the restrained guitar and banjo picking
on show here and the utter clarity of the sound produced. It
is firmly rooted in the simplest of musical gestures and yet
manages to build, intricate layer by intricate layer, into a
manifestation of ethereal timelessness.
This is at once a clear definition of Frisell's
modus operandi and attention to infinitesimally small detail
and also a new direction back into the future. There will be
comparisons with his Nashville album but these will be misplaced.
That album was a celebration of the discovery by Frisell of a
whole new genre that he could explore with relish and of new
players with fresh ideas that he could share in and the resulting
album radiated pure joy. Apart from some specific generic borrowings
that is where the resemblance ends. The Willies has far less
appreciable artifice than Nashville (ie: high octane picking
from the likes of Jerry Douglas on dobro) and much more specific
emotional simplicity. If you are familiar with the music of Doc
Boggs or Roscoe Holcombe from their Smithsonian Folkways recordings
this will be self evident. If not, it has to do with the phrase
associated with Holcombe's playing: that 'high and lonesome sound'.
It is both mournful and melancholic, without sentimentality and
rooted in the harsh realities of survival yet refusing to relinquish
faith in a better hereafter. This is the essence that Frisell
captures with unerring accuracy.
Three musicians contribute: Frisell on a variety
of electric and acoustic guitars and loops, Danny Barnes on banjo
and guitars and Keith Lowe on bass. All three play with a familiarity
bred out of respect for a common musical heritage and a zeal
for travelling in undiscovered country.
The quality of sound is so paramount to this project
and so intimately articulated that Lee Townsend, Frisell's long-time
producer, has to be considered as an essential fourth band member.
It is to his great credit that every sound, every nuance and
every single note has weight, integrity, balance and harmony.
The old tunes, 'Goodnight Irene'or 'Cluck Old Hen'
for example, are simply stated and there is little deviation
from the melody Frisell choosing to improvise around them with
sparse and uncluttered phrasing. This liberates him completely.
Every note counts and nothing, absolutely nothing, is thrown
away. Simple songs, simply stated: this is only the start. Layers
of sound, sometimes the merest breath or a hint, are painstakingly
added. It may be a loop, an echo, a single note or reverberation
or a repeated phrase on a different instrument with a different
texture. It may be the scratch of a single banjo string or the
squeak of finger on fret. All seems to have equal importance,
equal right to be present. Yet these layerings are so carefully
administered that the resultant composite feels totally natural,
almost subliminal, and the listener is quite capable of discerning
each separately. Curiously, this has the opposite effect to feeling
artificial (even though you know this is constructed) and feels
absolutely organic like the varying strata of age-old rock formations.
Textural differences are important too. Danny Barnes
banjo playing is revelatory. Harsh, scratchy and almost naive
at times it sounds more like a koto than a banjo and has both
an unnerving and soothing feel. Using it as a rhythm instrument
to initiate and underpin most of the tunes gives them a gritty
and basic foundation full of tension on which to build far more
sonorous and esoteric soundscapes in typical Frisell fashion.
The music unfolds at its own pace, nothing is pushed beyond its
own, natural rhythm. In far less experienced hands this could
verge on the monotonous but Frisell always knows when to inject
another twist or loop to open out the musical vista. This is
composition of the highest order masquerading as back porch rambling.
The range of guitar sounds seems infinite: big, booming, acoustic
dreadnoughts, cheap, thin and tinny archtops and the customary
electric surf twang. There are no extended solo outings, Frisell
instead choosing to use minor exploratory forays in and around
the basic melodic structure giving an almost minimalist build
up of repetition.
Keith Lowe is the most unobtrusive of bass players
and yet his presence is absolutely essential to the overall sound
of this music. You sense him rather than hear him throughout
like the murmur of blood in the veins.
This music has no name and needs none. It has a feeling and a
remembrance of things past. Call it Bill Frisell music, call
it Americana, call it brilliant. - by John Cratchley, The
strangely for a guitar player, I'm not actually that fond of
guitar instrumental albums. But this onis Something Else. Own
up time - I've heard of Bill Frisell of course, but never consciously
paid attention: the words 'jazz guitar' are a little too closely
associated with the adjective 'noodling' in my sad prejudices.
Many irrelevant guitar CDs flit throught these offices on their
way to landfill, characterised by smart-arsed picking but with
no actual tunes discernible, let alone any roots. I know that
not everybody can be Martin Simpson, but...
So, to the CD in hand. What
our man does here is tackle a repoertoire of Murkan roots music,
mostly ou of the old time/country bracket - trad. standards
On Top of the World", "Cluck Old Hen", "Single
Girl, Married Girl", "John Hardy" and "Blackberry
Blossom", plus Dock Bogg's "Sugar Baby", Leadbelly's "Goodnight
Irene", Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" and
the like. In a completely different way, it applies the same
principle as the mighty Snakefarm did when they so successfully
trip-hopped well-known songs from the US folk canon a couple
of years ago: go back to the naked song repertoire as a starting
point, abandon all preconceived ideas about the way the tunes
are 'supposed' to be played, and move them tangentially into
a new landscape. Great tunes are great tunes, they don't need
a glass museum case.
It's a landscape with some shurbbery that John Fahey, Marc Ribot,
Michael Brook, David Grisman. Daniel Lanois and Kelly Joe Phelps
might variously feel a little touch of deja vu in. But really
this is as truly an original work as you'll find using traditional
tunes as the foundation. It's stripped down, but gorgeously full-sounding
all at the same time: hats off to producer Lee Townsend. Alongside
Frisell's beautifully recorded big ambient electric guitar is
the Bad Livers' Danny Barnes contributing old-time mountain and
bluegrass banjo and guitar, and bassist Keith Lowe. The trio
are almost telepathically relaxed and natural. They have playing
chops to scare you to death when you actually analyse what they
do, but there's not an iota of needless flash in here and any
noodlesque picking is absolutely essential to the texture. And
it has lots of texture.
A record that completely gets its hooks in, revealing more and
more detail each play. - by Ian Anderson, fRoots
"This is wonderful music lovingly arranged
for a powerful trio, and played delicately. Danny Barnes brings
along fellow Codger bassist Keith Lowe (Fiona Apple/ David Sylvian).
Recorded in Seatlle at Flora Street Studio with producer Lee
Townsend and engineer Tucker Martine, this is a record that is
more of a meditation on noted song forms than a musical effort,
as such. Standouts and could-be contenders for Best Country Instrumental
Grammy nods include "Cluck Old hen", "John Hardy", "Blackberry
"Sitting on Top of the World", "Goodnight Irene",
or even "Cold, Cold Heart". The originals are just
In all the records that will be released this year,
it will be hard to find one that meets all the artistic standards
its players set out for, yet remains easy on the ears. The
Willies is the best record I have heard this year." Nine