CHUCK JOHNSON: VELVET ARC (2016, TROUBLE IN MIND)
Originally published at North Country Primitive in February 2016
They’re all at it! Hot on the heels of C Joynes and Nick Jonah Davis’ Split Electric comes Velvet Arc, Chuck Johnson’s foray in to the world of electric guitar. Actually, that’s not entirely fair – Chuck has previous established form for this, via his work as part of Idyll Swords and of Spatula, and this is an album where he returns to a context he is clearly no stranger to. It will, however, come as something of a surprise to those who know him entirely through his solo acoustic output of the past few years. And it’s not entirely fair for another reason: the heady stew presented on Velvet Arc is as far removed from Split Electric as you can imagine, whilst still remaining part of the same seam of guitar albums you’re going to want to hear. Velvet Arc lets drop a profusion of clues as to where Chuck is coming from and possibly even where he’s heading - from Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, to the Fluxus Group, to desert rock, to psychedelia, to post rock, to Hank Marvin, to progressive rock and even to Southern soul and deep fried boogie.
Chuck sets his stall out from the opening notes. As I Stand Counting is laconic and Morricone-styled, like a very stoned Dick Dale - but then pushed through a countrified cosmic rock filter. Halfway through, however, a fuse is lit and Chuck summons up the spirit of fried Texan psychedelia, in a detonation worthy of Cold Sun. Everything At Once, meanwhile, feels like a portrait of bittersweet reunion – evoking the kind of warm and fuzzy sensations brought about by laughing and crying at the same time – and is driven by a pipe organ-emulating guitar and pedal steel duet, repeating itself endlessly from within a setting hinting at celestial harmonising taking place just out of earshot.
Anamet is exploratory even as it harks back – Terry Riley jamming with the Shadows – subtle washes of cello and quasi-musical soundscaping framing a simple, unaffected guitar melody. The title track, meanwhile, is the closest piece on Velvet Arc to the sort of thing fans of Chuck’s recent albums have come to expect. Even so, those expectations are subverted: the guitar is complemented first by pedal steel and then by fiddle, calling forth a sad mountain band elegising its dead. Partway through, the structure falls away, leaving glittering shards of understated guitar to careen off the eddying circularity of the other instruments - playing, if you will, with the memory of the original tune, only to be resolved with the return of Chuck’s guitar for a brief concluding coda.
The final trio of compositions ratchet the surprise factor up a few more notches. Roadside Auspices is Eureka-era Jim O’Rouke covering mid 70’s Eno, with its precise yet easy-going prog-rock shapes. The Pace is a swamp rock soul shuffle, referencing Memphis, Muscle Shoals and New Orleans. It’s the Meters, as covered by Chuck’s Good Time Gumbo Band. Middle Water continues this trajectory with a choogling alt-country boogie, pausing momentarily to throw the listener off the scent with a brief Persian psych interlude, before order is restored.
Chuck’s music often feels quite cerebral and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But on Velvet Arc, the intellectual rigour is leavened by at least three separate factors – the unmediated emotional candour; the weather conditions he conjures up – at times, sticky and humid, at others, scorched and sun-bleached – and the unfettered celebration of twang.
More importantly, from all this, you shouldn’t for a minute come away with the notion that this album is in any way incoherent or derivative. It is without doubt a melting pot of ideas, styles and influences, but it retains a keen sense of its own identity from start to finish. Moreover, it’s defiantly and overwhelming a Chuck Johnson album – his compositions and playing are the ropes that bind it together as a unified whole. It has all the immediacy of his solo acoustic work, but this time he’s looking to the horizon, on an album that promises to keep revealing its depths and layers.