CHUCK JOHNSON: BLOOD MOON BOULDER (2015, SCISSOR TAIL EDITIONS)
Review by Will Csorba. Originally published at North Country Primitive in December 2015
Blood Moon Boulder is the third in a series of guitar albums released since 2011 from Chuck Johnson of California. His previous release Crows in the Basilica, which came as my first encounter with Johnson, quickly became a personal favorite of mine, so it is not without significance that this one did not disappoint in the least. There are a lot of new departures here from his previous work, both thematically and technically, including new instrumentation in the use of a Weissenborn-style lap guitar. He is accompanied on a couple of tracks - incorporating violin, pedal steel, and even electronic sounds similar to those heard on his recent cassette release, CJ-1. The opening track, Corvid Tactics is the lengthiest piece on the album, and it’s a beauty. Performed on a lap steel slide guitar, it consists structurally of two distinct sections that have an interesting but definite continuity with each other. The first is a longer, very spacious and rhythmically open free raga section in which the slide approach is utilized marvelously, taking full advantage of the access it provides to the full, un-partitioned range of tones, which at the hand of Johnson results in some really substantive and coherent melodic content. It recalls, perspicuously, the traditional music of India and pictures it evocatively, with sensitivity as well as sophistication - there is no gimmickry with the exotic to be found here. By way of a rather abrupt culmination of the first part, which nevertheless somehow feels natural and really satisfies, the closing section moves along at a much quicker tempo in an evenly paced, driving alternating bass rhythm, where the melodies are supported by the strength of full chord changes in the tradition of deeply American harmonic sensibility. The fact that Johnson’s timing is impeccable, that the tone of the instrument and the precision of his playing are immaculate, only heightens the beauty of the composition. It’s quite something. Silver Teeth in the Sun comes out aggressively, even menacingly, as though to remind the listener of his or her mortality after having been brought to such heights by the pull of the opener. It’s a hard-driving and relentless piece of music, except for a couple of ominous pauses which only reinforce this character. It works nicely as the second track, restoring balance that keeps us moving forward. At the center of the album are its two briefest tracks. Medicine Map may perhaps be interpreted as a reworking of the blues guitar tune, Vestapol, as it recognizably contains some of the same changes, especially since Johnson played a great version of that tune on his previous release. But if that is the case, this would be all the more a novel and adventurous composition, one feature of which is a very nice and effective contrasting section to the theme first introduced. To me, its feeling is like that evoked by a tune like Vestapol if it were slowed down and embued with an added dimension of contemporary sentiment which seems – appropriately - just beyond the reach of language to describe. With a vibe I would describe similarly in terms of the reimaging of an old-time sentiment for the contemporary, Inversion Layer is a fairly simple and yet compositionally strong one - and quite pretty. The Deer and the Snake challenges the opener as perhaps the best piece on the album. Here, Johnson returns to his slide technique on lap guitar, as in Corvid Tactics, but with what seems to me maybe an even more deliberate attention to the subtleties to be found in the spaces between notes. It has a strikingly darker mood than the opener and seems to address itself to a matter of great weight. Interestingly, this track features accompaniment for the first time, firstly from a haunting droning violin, then some electronically produced drones overlapping with the violin and, finally, some kind of chimes or bells that continue on at the track’s conclusion for a couple minutes after the guitar has ceased to play. The closer, Private Violence, which includes instrumentation by Johnson on both electric guitar and pedal steel as well as with electronics, really reinforces some of the vibes strongly felt in Corvid Tactics, but with an entirely different tone. It feels like a dramatically slowed and elongated country and western ballad, evoking the finality of the setting sun on the desert horizon, and for me at a personal level, it conjures the memory and emotions associated with where I used to live in New Mexico, in which the landscape at dusk suggests a portrait of reality that lays bare the meeting of dusty earth and vastness of sky. As with his previous releases, Johnson’s restraint and maturity as a composer and technician are once again most impressive. The result is an album that succeeds both at the level of the particular and also as a coherent and meaningful whole. In the end, my only complaint might be with the length of the album, since after clocking out at 38 minutes, I find myself wanting more: on the other hand, I must concede that its brevity is simultaneously one of the album’s strengths. Nothing is superfluous – Blood Moon Boulder is concise and purposeful throughout.