Only two months in, 2014 has already seen a raft of great guitar album releases (stay tuned for more highlights). Regular readers should know by now that I’m a huge Jim Campilongo fan and was eagerly awaiting the January 21st release of Dream Dictionary. It’s been a month since release day, and it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that I still have the disc in heavy rotation.
Dream Dictionary is consistent with Jim’s creative trajectory since American Hips (2003). Operating largely in a trio format (Dictionary features Josh Dion on drums and Chris Morrissey on bass), Campy picks, bends, and squawks his way through twelve tunes that demonstrate his uncanny ability to infuse the well-trodden soundscapes of Americana with a beautifully eclectic and instantly recognizable electric imprint. Fans of the guitarist’s output over the past decade should find themselves in familiar territory as Campilongo navigates through reverb-laden slow burners (“The Past is Looking Brighter and Brighter”), loping snap-and-pop blues excursions (“Nang Nang”), and the requisite guest appearance by Norah Jones (“Here I Am”), a frequent collaborator vis-à-vis the Little Willies.
While Dream Dictionary isn’t a radical departure, there is evidence of an evolution in Jim’s sound that was starting to become readily apparent on his last album, Orange (2010). Jim’s early recordings with the 10 Gallon Cats were rooted in country and western swing; subsequent trio recordings relaxed the breakneck tempos and explored moodier, jazzier territory. Jim certainly hasn’t abandoned those influences in recent years, but his affinity for the more eccentric capabilities of the electric guitar – feedback, overdrive, pinch harmonics, and microtonal bends – has increasingly taken center stage since Orange. Most guitarists employ these techniques for novelty effect; Campilongo, by stark contrast, has made them central to his musical vocabulary.
In a recent interview, Campy noted that he had been listening to a lot of 70s-era Miles Davis while writing the material for Dream Dictionary, manifested in the slow, sinister funk of the album’s opener (“Cock and Bull Story”) and the meditative title track. However, to a greater degree than any previous Campilongo album, this one seems to channel a more fundamental influence – the late Roy Buchanan. Roy’s imprint on Jim has always been evident, but Dictionary takes the listener in darker and more intensely contemplative directions than ever before, forging a soulful connection to the music that recalls the best of Buchanan’s early recordings (before the tragic picker’s inner demons took a toll on the consistency of his output). Reassuringly, Dream Dictionary closes with the upbeat and playful “Pie Party,” a galloping country romp that reminds us of Jim Campilongo’s lighter side and his consistent ability to connect with audiences on multiple levels — both musical and emotional.
Two new albums from a pair of songwriter/guitarists with righteous facial hair — the perfect soundtrack to Movember.
Shadows, Greys & Evil Ways by the White Buffalo
It’s been almost two years since Jake Smith, aka The White Buffalo, released his outstanding sophomore LP Once Upon a Time in the West. That album, along with a heavy touring schedule, has helped cement Smith’s reputation on the alt-country scene (contributing to the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack hasn’t hurt either). Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways demonstrates that The White Buffalo is staying true to his muse, continuing to deliver gritty and honest — yet thoughtful — songwriting.
Following an Americana-centric 2012, I’m making a more concerted effort this year to feature jazz guitarists on the blog. Luckily, 2013 seems to be starting off as a good year for jazz guitar.
Standards, Old and New by Mimi Fox
The shadow of Joe Pass looms large over jazz guitarists, particularly those who play the instrument in a solo context. Bay area virtuoso Mimi Fox studied for a time with Pass, so it’s no surprise that her latest album of solo instrumentals reflects the master’s influence. That’s not to say the effort is derivative; far from it. Fox is a distinctive and original musician, reflected not only in her technique but her choice of tunes. On Standards, Old and New she covers classic territory with tracks like “Cry Me a River” and “Four on Six.” The former is re-harmonized so thoroughly that it sounds like a whole new song, while the latter manages to capture the momentum and spontaneity of Wes Montgomery at his finest (no small feat in a solo setting). Fox more unconventionally bookends the album with two standards from the folk music real book. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” are re-imagined as jazz instrumentals, doing the original tunes justice while at the same time opening the melodies to improvisational exploration. A thoughtful album well worth the price of admission.
I grew up in New Mexico, where the history and culture are permeated by the proud legacy of America’s native peoples. The darker legacy of Native American removal and oppression – including grinding poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and social marginalization – is also on vivid display if you bother to venture out of the major cities into New Mexico’s rural areas. On My World is Gone, Otis Taylor laments that America’s well-to-do “ain’t never been to the reservation.” Sadly, this lament applies not only to the 1%, but probably to the vast majority of Americans – including many middle class New Mexicans like myself – who too rarely give the reservation a second thought.
Listening to the eleven tunes on Searching for the Song is like feeding quarters into a dusty juke box in a throwback honky tonk. Fans of classic country are rewarded by strains of Hank, Waylon, and Buck. Guitars, pedal steel, and even Mariachi horns recall Bakersfield and Nashville rebellion. Richmond-based Andy Vaughan and the Driveline are not aiming to reinvent country; the band is committed to tried and true country formulas from the 1960s and 70s – an aesthetic that sits just fine with this reviewer.
You wouldn’t know it from tuning in the radio dial, but country music is alive and well. Quite well in fact, if the debut Cow Island Music release from J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices is any indication. I actually did a double take when I read “debut album” in the press sheet that came with I’ll Keep Calling. What I heard coming from the speakers was the kind of tightly crafted, authentic honky tonk swing that’s been missing from the Nashville Top 40 for decades now.