Bill Orcutt's new debut solo album is both a reiteration of Harry Pussy's complex noise experiments and a move away from his main band's barely controlled sonic assaults. Issued last month on the mighty fine NYC indie label Audible Hiss, Orcutt's untitled set (actually, the spine reads Bill Orcutt "Solo CD" [Untitled]) establishes him as one of the most gifted and innovative guitarists currently working in whatever you consider to be the avant-garde of underground rock and roll. Like similar six-string adventurers such as Loren Mazzacane Connors, Alan Licht, Nels Cline, and Matthew Bower, Orcutt expands the sonic possibilities of the guitar through an alternative approach to how the thing can be played, what you can and can't do with it, from self-created tunings to the way the strings are pulled, picked, and strummed.
On "Collective Action" and "Yes Blues," Orcutt stays pretty close to the Harry Pussy format: On both tracks HP drum basher Adris Hoyos is present on shrieking vocals, but New York-based drummer Danny Arad does a good job of appropriating her exploding percussive attack. (Actually, his playing throughout the album is amazing -- a perfect match for Orcutt.) What's different about each song is Orcutt's sound, which eschews the dramatic drone of HP for a more deliberate, almost sedate approach to noise-making on guitar. Even more impressive is his work on "Live 71" and "Damage Alert." The former offers a brief shot of staccato drum flourishes, rumbling bass (compliments of Qunicas Moriera), and delicate guitar noodles. The latter is both the centerpiece of the album and maybe the best piece of music in Orcutt's growing canon, a fourteen-minute floater built around Arad's high-hat fluttering and some soft, almost meditative fretboard diddlings that are like nothing you've ever heard.
I've yet to catch the new Harry Pussy lineup, in which Holy Terrors guitarist Dan Hosker replaces the departed Mark Feehan, and if the revamped trio has recorded anything, I haven't heard it. Based on his solo record, though, Orcutt has obviously found new ways to approach his music and execute his ideas and concepts. Hell, halfway through "Damage Alert," you'll wonder if he even needs a band any more.
If you can't find the disc in local stores, drop a line to Audible Hiss at P.O. Box 1242, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276.
The reputation of Texas singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt always exceeded the actual merits of his work, just as the artists he's been said to influence have almost always bettered the work of their mentor. Certainly the tragedy inherent in his life -- an inveterate alcoholic who never found much success with his handful of albums -- ensured the romanticizing of Van Zandt as a cult legend, regardless of his piss-poor vocals or the mystical mumbo jumbo he often passed off as meaningful outpourings. He's been touted by songwriters as great as Guy Clark and Steve Earle, but critic Dave Marsh nailed it when he called him the Jackson Browne of Texas.
Still, compared to a lot of songwriters who have made fortunes by churning out hackneyed hits for Nashville's latest kings and queens, being the Jackson Browne of Texas ain't bad, and if Van Zandt never lived up to his reputation, he at least wrote a few great songs. He had been making records since the late Sixties, and in 1973 recorded what most consider to be his finest moment: Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, issued belatedly in 1977 on the Tomato label. Typically, Van Zandt sounds whooped, like a man beaten by the hardship of his life until fatalism is the only philosophy he can really savor. It imbues everything here -- the Western mythos of "Pancho & Lefty"; the resigned melancholy in the loser's love song "Don't You Take It Too Bad"; the somewhat rocking "White Freight Liner Blues," maybe the greatest trucker's song about someone not actually maneuvering one of the big rigs; and my favorite, "For the Sake of a Song," a classic of despair, regret, and self-loathing.
And on it went for many albums issued throughout the Seventies and Eighties, none of which were really bad, few of which were anything more than mediocre. When better singers tackled his songs, they came out with winners: "Pancho & Lefty" was a huge hit for Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson in 1982, and Steve Earle's blazing take of "White Freight Liner Blues" found on the recent compilation Rig Rock Deluxe will likely stand as the definitive version. Van Zandt was someone I always wanted to like more than I actually liked. Every time I'd play one of his records, I wished it were better. I tried to rationalize his shortcomings. If he wallowed too shamelessly in his own self-pity, well, who the hell doesn't catch themselves wallowing every now and then. And if his craggy, broken-down voice lacked the phrasing, nuance, and timbre of a Waylon Jennings or a Billy Joe Shaver, it was still a lot more evocative and real than the spit-slick crooners mugging on TNN. And if he didn't seem to care about ever having a hot band around to help him put the songs across, you could also say the same about the Bob Dylan of Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and Street-Legal. Nothing worked, though. His art remained too flawed -- too much potential being wasted.
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Townes Van Zandt died on New Year's Day after a heart attack at his home in Smyrna, Tennessee. He was 52. Shortly before his death, Van Zandt had been recording at a studio in Memphis with, of all people, Steve Shelley, drummer for postpunk noisemakers Sonic Youth. It could've been a magical pairing, but the sessions reportedly were scrapped because Van Zandt was just too out of it -- so out of it that he didn't even know he had a broken hip, despite the fact that he was confined at the time to a wheelchair because of the injury.
Sadly, tragically, up to his death, Townes Van Zandt was wasting his potential.
-- By John Floyd