It is not unusual for acoustic players to have spent time playing rock but there can’t be too many fingerstyle guitarists with Chuck Johnson’s background. Before taking up fingerstyle guitar in the 1990s, Johnson had played avant garde rock, became interested in Minimalist composition and had developed a serious and continuing interest in electronic music. In 2009 he completed an MFA in Electronic Music and Intermedia Art and he marries the worlds of fingerstyle and electronics under the term Folk Minimalism. Don’t let this hint of academia put you off this wonderful album.
‘Blood Moon Boulder‘, the title of which probably refers to eclipses of the moon visible in Boulder, Colorado, is a collection of six originals of which three are straight fingerstyle guitar in the John Fahey tradition and two are slide guitar pieces. The sixth is the only electric guitar track on the album and here the slide is replaced by pedal steel. Throughout, the playing is precise; the recording is sharp and clean.
The opening track Corvid Tactics starts with slow slide work, underpinned by simple arpeggios, which is more reminiscent of Hindustani slide guitar than Americana.The overall effect is one of space and calm. At around four minutes there is the beginnings of a merger and at around eight we are in the country of Americana driven by the bounce heard in the American Primitive school. This gives the long piece (twelve minutes or so) a real sense of movement which leads to the rest of the album.
Silver Teeth in the Sun, is a much more straightforward fingerstyle piece in the Fahey tradition. It has a drive which carries on where Corvid Tactics leaves off. Admittedly all reaction to music is subjective, but I cannot help but see this track as a (rail?) journey through striking mountain scenery. Even the set of strummed chords in the middle feel like a tipping point…top of the hill?
Medicine Map, seems to continue the notion of taking the listener down from the hills to the more gentle scenery of the plain. The writing and playing is akin to Silver Teeth but softer. This feeling is continued in the following trackInversion Layer which has a sense of imminent, then actual arrival.
Track five, The Deer and the Snake, returns to slide guitar but this time closer to Paris, Texas while still offering hints of the Hindustani feel in the opening track. The album is back to stillness, the sense of forward movement is gone to be replaced with foreboding if not outright menace. The bells under the continuo of the sustained ending somehow don’t quite relieve the tension. The result is unnerving.
Track six, Private Violence, is quite simply a gorgeous conversation between sparse electric guitar lead and pedal steel. Run your own film in your head…mine is a Tex/Mex bar room full of hard bitten Good Old Boys, raised on Cheatin’ Songs and crying into their beer ‘cos the band is so damn good.
If you love just to listen to or, like me, love to play the acoustic guitar…buy this album it will reward you for a lifetime.
Review by: Nick Dellar
Chuck Johnson arrived late to the world of solo instrumental guitar.
For nearly a quarter-century, Johnson made music in a variety of collaborative guises, from the atavistic indie rock of his ’90s tenure in Chapel Hill’s Spatula and the subsequent globetrotting explorations of Idyll Swords, to the wordless Southern exotica of Shark Quest and his stints with Superchunk and composition pioneer Pauline Oliveros. He’s explored vivid combinations of noise and beats in some projects, culled field recordings in foreign lands in others, and even provided much-lauded scores to films and television shows. For much of Johnson’s career, music has often seemed about connecting with others.
But five years ago, Johnson—then, a recent graduate of the prestigious Mills College, with an MFA partly in electronic music—stepped out alone, his acoustic guitar in hand. He has since released two albums of absorbing instrumental reflection, where pensive sentiments rippled from picked strings and swept chords. Collectively, they seemed to represent the feelings of an individual. During “Alight In The Nor’Easter,” from Johnson’s 2011 debut A Struggle, Not a Thought, three minutes of hair-raising worry resolved into one sudden, elegant pause for calm. And for “On A Slow Passing In Ghost Town,” from 2013’s wonderful Crows in the Basilica, Johnson spoke with his fingers of spirits and nostalgia, a sinister suspicion lurking just beneath the memories.
But on the incisive and ponderous new Blood Moon Boulder, Johnson treats his material as a set of variegated musical mirrors, where the listener applies emotions to a consciously vague framework.Blood Moon Boulder seems to change every time you hear it.
The 12-minute “Corvid Tactics,” for instance, skips between joy and the blues. Woeful slide guitar parts abut moments that feel like pure, colorful fantasy. As he thumbs the bassline with a little extra force, the piece’s late, galloping section seems to tuck some great sadness inside its ostensible jubilation. And toward the middle, Johnson uses his slide to approximate the sound of a sarod, just before he trots back into the core of what could pass as an Appalachian folk beauty. As his technique stretches, so goes the emotional sweep of the work, now more inclusive than any one story or its sharer. Likewise, the thin, gossamer melody of “Inversion Layer” is delightful. High notes and a lilting, stepwise motion hint at a joyful conversation with an old friend. But Johnson’s furtive, almost hesitant movement along the strings hints at something darker, like an old feud perhaps left unspoken but certainly not forgotten.
There’s no better example of Blood Moon Boulder‘s interactivity than the brilliant closer “Private Violence,” a duet for whinnying pedal steel and halting electric guitar. At times, it feels thoroughly depressed, as though the long, still spaces between Johnson’s notes were the unadulterated essence of existential exhaustion itself. Alternately, it feels like liftoff, with the harmonies between the amplified strings suggesting a restorative calm before a return to reality. Johnson spent two albums sharing his own tales; he’s now taken a rather distinguished turn by giving us a framework with which we can reflect on our own. However private it might have become, Johnson’s music has, yet again, found a way to make public connections.
Chuck Johnson’s 2013 long player Crows in the Basilica was one of the finest guitar soli excursions in recent memory. His latest release, Blood Moon Boulder, might just be even better. Gorgeously recorded by Trans Am’s Phil Manley, the half-dozen tracks here showcase Johnson’s powerful six-string mastery, as the guitarist rolls out one breathtaking composition after the next.
Like Daniel Bachman’s recent River, Blood Moon Boulder kicks off with an ambitious, extended work: the 11+ minute “Corvid Tactics” is captivating from the first note to the last, calling to mind John Fahey’s Fare Forward Voyagers period or Ry Cooder in an expansive frame of mind. The driving Americana of “Silver Teeth in the Sun” follows, with a descending minor-key melody that is perfectly complemented by the wistful mood of “Medicine Map.” Johnson throws the rulebook out the window on the meditative closing track, “Private Violence,” filling the frame with lonesome electric guitar and luminous pedal steel. All in all,Blood Moon Boulder is a widescreen stunner, music to lose yourself in. Don’t miss it. words / t wilcox
As guitarist Chuck Johnson continues his work in the American Primitive tradition, pulling from the long history of folk, blues, and gospel in his own compositions, his music has gotten much more melodically entrancing and deeply emotional. The opening track of his third full-length album, Blood Moon Boulder—the nearly 12-minute long “Corvid Tactics”—feels like its own little short story. Johnson builds that emotive resonance with the same calm that he uses to move between the finger-picked melodies and the raga-like slide guitar lines that swirl around each other. The song keeps evolving and expanding until a bouncy rhythm takes over that will leave you feeling as if you’ve burst through the clouds and are soaring in open sky.
While the sheer length of the songs that make up the rest of this touching LP ensure that they won’t take the listener on a journey quite so expansive, the music still lands all the right beats, just on a smaller scale, such as when Johnson halts the otherwise playful and burbling “Silver Teeth in the Sun” in its tracks for a minute of long, drawn-out chords. When the original finger-picked melody returns, the mood of it has changed completely into something far more melancholic. Or there’s the beautiful “Private Violence,” which features a mournful electric guitar melody intercut with pedal steel and the occasional hum of a violin, that slowly dissipates into a grey wash of drone. It would not be a surprise to learn that some powerful event happened in Johnson’s life before writing this material.
Of all the solo instrumental guitarists that are currently enjoying a groundswell in interest and acclaim, Johnson continues to prove himself to be one of the leading lights of this welcome revival. And with Blood Moon Boulder, he’s moved even further ahead of the pack. The six songs here feel elevated not only by Johnson’s impressive technique and writing but also his willingness to not leave anything covering up his musical intentions. Even if you don’t know exactly what moment or memory helped inspired a particular track, the glowing core of sentiment at the center of each one is tangible and unmistakable.