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.