Prefatory note: I am exceedingly pleased to see that my good (internet) friend Iain F. has tossed his hat in the oeuvreblogging ring with his dissection of the Bluetones' discography Paraguay and Laos. Not being British I've never heard them, but Iain's off to a great start and I think I'm going to enjoy his tour of those 111 songs very much indeed.
So, I missed yesterday due to getting a job, and although I've been planning this all day it feels like I'm going to miss it again, but I finally downloaded something the estimable Robert P. Inverarity smuggled to me under cover of night, and I'm listening to it and I'm sufficiently blown away I feel I should have today's entry cover not just a track, not just two tracks to cover yesterday, but a whole album. Alan Sparhawk's first solo album, in fact, the rather blandly named Solo Guitar.
It is far further 'out' than anything Low's done to date, and unsurprisingly appears on Silber rather than Sub Pop. My sole direct experience with Silber to date was label head Brian John Mitchell's (rather fantastic) album as Small Life Form, but that prepared me for something very un-songlike, at least as 'song' is traditionally conceived, and Solo Guitar is very much up that alley. Very far up that alley. Despite what the title might evoke, Sparhawk's album doesn't sound any sparser than, say, Still's turntable-only Remains, although it gives you much more of a story than that release.
Mostly because of the song titles. There are basically three stories on Solo Guitar, or two stories and one weird-ass cover/homage:
1 How the Weather Comes Over the Central Hillside (1:46)
2 Sagrado Corazón de Jesú (First Attempt) (1:12)
3 Sagrado Corazón de Jesú (Second Attempt) (13:26)
4 How a Freighter Comes into the Harbor (17:53)
5 How the Weather Hits the Freighter... (1:52)
6 ...in the Harbor (0:39)
7 How the Engine Room Sounds (2:49)
8 Eruption by Eddie Van Halen (2:36)
9 How It Ends (0:55)
The titles are at times almost terrifyingly literal, as in the end of "How a Freighter Comes into the Harbor" and "How the Engine Room Sounds." The record was recorded live, with just a guitar, some effects pedals and Alan, and everything on it was created in real time. I include the track times both because I tend to be curious and because here I think they tell a significant part of the story. Of course, when listened to instead of read I think all three elements of the tracklisting are actually facets of the same story (shades of Gene Wolfe's The Three Heads of Cerberus, one of my favourite books). It's highly suggestive that Alan would call a track "Sagrado Corazón de Jesú," of course, and I'm not exactly sure what that has to do with a nautical excursion (part of me wants to say 'disaster,' but "How It Ends" is enigmatic on that score) and Van Halen's finest finger-shredding guitar. But when you hear it, it makes sense.
I mean, I honestly have trouble writing about this stuff. I'm left with description: Sparhawk tends to get the two long tracks going by setting up layers of drones with his guitar and then occasionally bursting out all over them with a kind of violence that has never really been seen on a Low track. Even though he doesn't sing, it's unmistakably him; parts remind me of "Do You Know How to Waltz," yeah, but also "Laugh" and even a track like "(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace." He's got a very distinctive guitar style, and even as he stretches it all over the place there's still the odd reminder. The shorter tracks feel like a humble but necessary frame for the excursions of the two main pieces, setting them off and giving context. The Van Halen cover doesn't sound much like the original to my ears, but I've only heard that once or twice and don't play guitar myself. The first and second attempts at "Sagrado Corazón de Jesú" actually sound that way; the first peters out after a brief stab at it, but the second starts the same way before building in power to an almost monstrous degree. And as good as the shorter pieces are, those two lengthy ones are just about the most devastating things Sparhawk has ever put his hand to.
No disrespect to his work with Low, obviously. And your mileage will very much vary, especially given how much you like drones, abstract music and/or atonality (at times). But Solo Guitar feels a bit like the external expression of what might have been going through Alan's head around the time of the post-Great Destroyer breakdown, sublimated through a tale of a freighter and some sort of religious iconography. Before listening I was a bit skeptical of his decision to stack the two lengthy songs together, but it makes perfect sense now - they are, in a real sense, the album and separating them would just be weird. The end of "How a Freighter Comes into the Harbor" is shrieking that sounds almost like a subway train stopping, which makes me think it's not coming in to the harbor peacefully. But it's also beautiful in a kind of excoriating way. Maybe that's the best way to put Solo Guitar, really. Alan often comes across as not really taking it easy on himself or anyone else, and while this may have been very fun to record, it's more fulfilling than fun to listen to. I'm ordering it from Silber as soon as I have some money from the job, in any case. I'm not the type to order everything by any band just because of who makes it (...with the possible exception of Readymade), so this isn't a case of "oh, Alan Sparhawk did it, I should get it." Solo Guitar is as powerful and fierce as Low has ever been, and I kind of hope Alan tries something like it again at some point; he has such pinpoint control over the emotional affect of his instrument that as the Stylus review points out, the record is reminiscent of a good short story.