Tom James Scott, School and Rivers; Music For One, The Red Thumb

Two very different approaches to the acoustic guitar.  Both albums are purely instrumental, yet they come from contrasting schools of thought and as a result exist in considerably differing soundworlds.  The Tom James Scott record emerges from the (art) school of minimalist composition, right down to the Morton Feldman quotation on the sleeve.  Scott clearly believes that the impact of his music comes as much from the spaces between the notes as from the notes themselves.  As a result, much of the time on the record’s five long tracks is given over to silence, with the listener often left wondering when the next note is going to come along.  At times, the effect is unintentionally comic, as for example on the opening title piece “School and Rivers”, which put me in mind of nothing so much as a broken musical box weakly trying to play a tune.  The timbre of the guitar is tinny, while the event horizon is severely circumscribed; you keep waiting for something interesting to happen, but it never arrives.  A tuba emerges at intervals, sounding surprisingly puny for such a physical instrument.

At almost fifteen minutes long, this title track has the ability to tax the patience of all but the most Zen-inclined of listeners.  Undaunted, though, Scott proceeds with the even lengthier “Two Moons Behind The Horizon Sun”, which is every bit as abstract and meditative as its title implies.  On this piece, Scott restricts himself to bowing the guitar strings.  The resulting scrapes and squeaks sound, at least to these ears, too alien and forbidding for comfort.  It’s an uncompromising sound field for sure, one which really requires the listener to enter into a contemplative state of mind in order to respond to it.  Those unwilling or unable to locate such headspace face an uphill struggle.

Things do brighten up considerably on the third long piece, “Seabird”, which sees Scott caressing the strings of his guitar with a delicate lightness of touch.  Here the guitar sounds almost like a harp, emitting featherlight clouds of notes that shimmer in the haze.  On “Elephants” the guitar takes a back seat to the piano, which rumbles along nicely but unfortunately has to compete with the bizarre presence of a metronome, lending its intrusive tick to the entire piece for no readily apparent reason.  The sweeter and more palatable sound of the closing “Crane in the North” brings a welcome touch of John Martynesque folkiness to an otherwise rather dry and indigestible record. 

The fact that Canadian guitarist Sherry Ostapovitch goes by the name Music For One might lead you to expect another album of solipsistic introversion.  But in fact The Red Thumb is a far more listenable affair than School and Rivers, due in large part to Ostapovitch’s openness to folk and blues idioms which give the record an inclusivity largely absent from the Scott effort.  I think, for example, of Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas soundtrack, from which The Red Thumb derives much of its dusty appeal.  However lonesome that classic record may sound, it also has a twang to it which reaches out to the listener; and Ostapovitch preserves something of that sense of reaching out, of the urge to connect, on these twelve short pieces.

Ostrapovitch’s instrument of choice is the resonator guitar, a guitar which trades the warm sound of a standard acoustic specimen for greater volume and a distinctive metallic, countryish tone.  Armed with this formidable creation, she recorded the tracks that make up The Red Thumb in a matter of hours, with no editing or post-production taking place at all.  The results are wandering and hypnotic, with more than a hint of primitive American guitarists John Fahey and Robbie Basho about the finished article.  Where Tom James Scott seems content to settle for a series of scrappy and static interventions, Ostrapovitch plumps for threads of gently melodic flurries.  “Forwards and Back”, for example, is a beautifully still and quiet piece, filled with clusters of notes that hang in the air like woodsmoke.

Like Scott, Ostrapovitch delivers one piece (“The Wind From The Irish Sea”) by bowing the guitar strings – and like Scott’s somewhat similarly titled “Two Moons Behind The Horizon Sun”, the resultant droney stasis provides the least welcoming moments on the record.  Better by far to skip to the last track, “Devil’s Got My Woman”.  In this eerie treatment of a song by an old bluesman called Skip James, Ostrapovitch nags and worries away at her strings to perfection.  This CD comes in a very attractive screenprinted gatefold sleeve, whose elegant reds and browns accurately reflect the suggestions of mythic America buried deep within the record.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 18, 2009)

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