C. JOYNES & NICK JONAH DAVIS: SPLIT ELECTRIC (2015, THREAD RECORDINGS)
Originally published at North Country Primitive in January 2016
Split Electric is what you get when you let two of the UK’s most consistently invigorating acoustic guitarists not only pick up electric guitars, but also smash their heads repeatedly against a whopping great vintage plate reverb with the inevitable outcome. Thread Records, this happened on your watch and you should hang your heads in shame – you’ve unleashed a monster.
Although, as the title suggests, this is a split release rather than a collaborative effort, Joynes and Davis’ approaches to the electric guitar seem to almost intuitively complement each other. There is little, if anything, in the way of untoward jarring as we switch back and forth between the two of them over the course of the album. In fact, it sounds very much like the process of making Split Electric involved them dreaming up a shared set of aesthetic principles to guide their direction of travel. Either that, or there’s some weird psychic energy coursing along the leyline between Nottingham and Cambridge.
Electrification has not distracted either contributor from their customary craftsmanship, economy of style or general absence of palaver. In the hands of lesser players, this album could have quickly descended into a morass of bombast or noodling: with Joynes and Davis it is absolutely clear that any early warning signs of the onset of fretwankery would have had them seeking urgent medical and spiritual attention. Having said that, both musicians make excellent use of the opportunities afforded to them by amplification: there’s plenty of buzzing and humming and an admirable deployment of sustain and distortion – but never so much that the musical intent is overwhelmed or diminished. Electricity is the medium, not the message: the temptation to fill every space with sound is doggedly resisted. Put simply, they both understand the importance of giving this music room to breathe.
In noting the aesthetic congruence on display, I’m not for a moment suggesting that the contributions of the two player are interchangeable. Not at all - each of them brings their already honed individual take on acoustic playing to the table. During what could rather grandiosely be described as a blind tasting, the only piece that gave pause was Davis’ Corksniffer’s Delight, which I momentarily attributed to Joynes, blindsided as I was by the growl and raunch on offer. For, at the risk of overstating the case - and with the proviso that any generalisation is duty-bound to be riddled with holes - Joynes is responsible for the earthier contributions, directly channelling folk and country blues traditions - and on Endomorph Vs Ectomorph even going so far as to consort with the spectres of Pussy Galore and the Blues Explosion. Davis, on the other hand, leans towards a kind of backwoods psychedelia, with a gossamer touch of light and frost. He has a skittering grace that neatly counterpoints Joynes’ throatier chug.
The very strong brace of openers confirms this theory. Joynes’ The Running Board toys with rockabilly swagger - it lets you know it’s up for a good time, but that you probably shouldn’t do anything to get on its wrong side. In fact, it comes on for all the world like a musically more articulate Billy Childish. Meanwhile, Davis’ Poa Kichizi conjures up winter sunshine - crisp guitar figures leavened by warm distortion. It is shot through with the same wistfulness that characterises the more bucolic outpourings of the Canterbury Scene: you wouldn’t be surprised if Robert Wyatt fronted up half way through with melancholy vocal.
Frankly, there’s not a duff track on the entire album. Between them, the two guitarists summon up a heady stew of references - from the weird, old America, to Trumpton, to the British folk rock surge of the 70s - and Bold William Taylor is crying out for Joynes to collaborate with drummer Alex Neilson. I’m not even going to try to make a case for whose contributions I favour more - this album truly is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. If pressed, however, this week’s top picks have to be Davis’ aforementioned Corksniffer’s Delight, where a heavy psychedelic boogie lurks just around the corner, and Joynes’ Whittlesey Straw Bear Tune, where a well known English folk theme is morphed into John Fahey channelling Tales From The Riverbank for the benefit of a pissed-up Cossack dance troupe.
C. Joynes and Nick Jonah Davis are playing in Manchester tomorrow night. In time honoured tradition, some wag is bound to shout “Judas” within minutes of one or the other of them plugging in. To which the only possible response can be “I don’t believe you.”