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Bill Orcutt: How the Thing Sings

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Bill Orcutt

How the Thing Sings

Editions Mego

Depending on how literally you want to take it, the “thing” referenced in the title could be Bill Orcutt’s guitar, a battered acoustic with the A and D strings missing. Or maybe the “thing” is Orcutt himself, the former guitarist of scrabbling noise-punk unit Harry Pussy who dropped out of sight for a decade only to re-emerge playing solo on said guitar (any actual vocalizing he does is limited to high-pitched moans or Tourette’s-like outbursts). Or maybe it’s something else altogether. But what’s become apparent over the past two years is that Orcutt has found a way to funnel the anarchic energy of HP into the American steel-string acoustic tradition, making for a whole new type of song.

How the thing sang on his 2009 LP A New Way to Pay Old Debts tended toward explosive outbursts of frenetic picking, obsessively repeating and worrying angular riffs/motifs and slashing at the strings, not so much anything you would associate with the blues tradition but featuring a similar economy and root simplicity of structure and, above all, vivid emotion. How the Thing Sings’ “The Visible Bosom” reprises that approach, opening with arpeggios and a single-note melody line that quickly moves into alternating picked outbursts, plummy chords, and furious attacks; at one point, it sounds like Orcutt’s trying to wrest a single string right out of the machine head. But elsewhere, he branches out from the single-minded focus found on A New Way. The title track is just one of several that wraps Orcutt’s signature buzzy, string-banging assaults in more brooding, occasionally delicate settings; it’s no stretch to call “Heaven Is Closed to Me Now” beautiful. Meanwhile, the closing “A Line From Ol’ Man River” both links Orcutt’s music to a deeper American tradition (through said all-but-unknowable line) and extends his approach into a dynamic 13-plus-minute improvisation that, despite its repetitive nature, never fails to entrance.

At the end of “Till I Get Satisfied,” you can hear Orcutt breathing heavily in the brief silence after the last strum. This is, above all, intimate music, coming straight out of his guts, not always pretty but never less than alive and impossible to ignore. The next time someone asks you the last time someone did something new on a guitar, you can point to this.

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