Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sandy Bull

I was introduced to John Fahey by my old friend/boss J R Reed, who ran the Karma Records store that I (and Clark too!) worked.  Before Fahey got the hipster seal of approval from Byron Coley and Thurston Moore, he was a cult figure largely dismissed by punkers and noise heads as acoustic folky shit, and by many folkies as too simplistic and repetitive.  I remember specifically one guitarist who commented that Fahey was "okay, but his guitar work is too primitive, and his songs aren't complex or interesting".  I would contest the second point, but a lot of his recordings (leaving aside some late 60's/early 70's recordings where he was playing frequently and at the top of his game) don't demonstrate a level of guitar aptitude that would normally justify solo guitar records.

Why bring up Fahey in a Sandy Bull review?  In the first place, for better or for worse, John Fahey has defined American solo guitar music since his rise in the sixties, to the point that he has become THE post punk figurehead in that sub-genre.  It's not even that Fahey is all that popular outside the musician's community, and lord knows if there is a manual on how NOT to be a rock star, he wrote it . . . but given his influence on musicians from Leo Kottke to Jack Rose and beyond, and the obvious debt that many who do solo guitar music owe him, it is Fahey more than anyone else who currently defines the genre.

More on point, the comparison highlights the issues that I have with most of what I've heard from Sandy Bull. Anyone who has heard any of Sandy Bull's work knows that above all he was pretty badass on a variety of strings.  On this record alone, he gives good reckoning on bass, electric and acoustic guitars, pedal steel, and (above all) oud . . . often playing along with pre-recorded tracks he laid down and played back on a reel-to-reel four track visible in the back cover photo.  None of this ever sounds cheesy, as it so easily could; and neither does the co-billed Rhythm Ace first-generation drum machine.  Throughout, Bull's playing is simultaneously in the pocket and imaginative, and he pulls of an unusual trick of playing fresh and avoiding cliches while never playing a wrong note.  Indeed, Sandy Bull is exactly what my guitar playing friend wanted John Fahey to be.

The problem is that, while the stringwork is first rate, this album falls short as music: it always sound more like a really impressive guitar demo than finished music.  One song, "Love is Forever", has Bull delivering horrible lyrics in a horrible singing voice, rendering the song completely unlistenable in spite of some good backing tracks.  The other songs, while not travesties like "Love is Forever", are pretty mundane.  Only the first song, an almost eight minute workout on the oud, really catches the ear.  But here again, I think Bull falls short compared to Fahey: when Fahey did old blues or folk classics, he transformed them, made them his.  Bull's oud work, while exceptional, comes of as an earnest attempt to emulate masters such as Hamza El Din.  And, unfortunately, as good as it may be, I will always reach for my Hamza El Din records if I want to hear the oud.

It's not a bad thing to strut your chops on solo guitar records, but it always should be subservient to the musical vision.  Leo Kottke approached Fahey-style American Primitive guitar with monster chops, and he would occasionally whip them out, but he rarely let them get in the way.  Richard Bishop (who, of all current musicians working the solo guitar tip, probably owes the least to Fahey) also sublimates his chops to the music.  With Sandy Bull, it seems he believes that chops are music.  And he is mistaken.

The album is worth listening to.  You may even listen to it more than once.  But for me, at least, it's not sticking.

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