Perfect Sound Forever

Bill Orcutt

Yer Blues: Bill's Brutal Grace
by Mike Wood
(March 2011)

He's been called everything from just another noise-monger to the most adventurous guitarist since Sonny Sharrock. Harry Pussy's Bill Orcutt sometimes finds himself in such heady company because, like Sharrock, his freeform shredding often attains a transcendent sonic life of its own, with the player along for the ride. Sharrock is also mentioned as a musical godfather because that is the name usually brought up, along with Keith Rowe or Derek Bailey, when people try to place such a player within a frame of reference. Orcutt's Harry Pussy pedigree spares him some of the over-intellectualizing that goes on when discussing free players- eggheads who might try to slip in a Coltrane or Pharoah reference are forced to consider noise-punk seriously, which most are loathe to do. For those more rockers than free jazz/improv buffs then, let's place Bill Orcutt's tonal aesthetic somewhere in between the off-kilter, in and out of time blues of Cedell Davis , along with Lou Reed's second solo on "Heard Her Call My Name."

From the time the trio bolted out of Miami in 1992 in support of their first self-titled debut (also infamously known by its alternative title: In an Emergency You Can Shit on a Puerto Rican Whore) to its 1997 demise, Harry Pussy treaded the lofty waters, being compared to the likes of Skullflower, Henry Cow, Melt Banana and Sonic Youth- bands who manipulated noise, relying on it for their power and assaultive potential, rather than as a cover for poor musicianship. While drummer Adris Hoyos' vocal style--somewhere between a shrieking assault victim and a haranguing revolutionary--is an acquired taste, Orcutt is never less that hypnotic and risky in his playing; there are layers to his tone that move all but their most abrasive throw-away tunes well beyond their surface din. One of the best examples of this is "Mandolin," from the Load compilation, where brittle drone (from both Orcutt and second guitarist Dan Hosker) expands into noise and then to a tiered cacophony that approaches space rock territory with its oddly meditative howl.

As Harry Pussy was naturally coming to an end, Orcutt released in his 1997 Solo CD, a record that featured a few guests, including Hoyos. While based on familiar HP motifs, the set ventured into new territory with the percussive, Bailey-esque "Live 71" and "Damage Alert," as well as "Benefit For Radio Alice," in which Orcutt's jittery but groove-y runs remind one of an unlikely sonic wedding between Albert Ayler and Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel. After this release, Orcutt more or less retired, focusing on family and work as a software writer.

It wasn't until 2008, while selecting and mixing the tracks for their mostly live career retrospective, You'll Never Play This Town Again (on Load), that Orcutt decided to pick up a guitar again. But this time around he chose an acoustic guitar, a vintage Kay that he bought when he was a teenager, tuned down to a drone and with the middle A and D strings removed. To have only four strings to work with seemed to him an advantage; as he told Joeri Bruyninckx in Foxy Digitalis, the lack of the middle strings meant that there were "no inner voices on the chords," allowing for a more stark sound.

A 2009 single, "High Wasted," was the first stirrings of his return, made complete with the stunning release later in the year of A New Way To Pay Old Debts, a record not only unlike his output of ten years or so prior, but often unlike any solo guitar work in recent memory.

Built upon Delta blues and late period John Fahey, the songs on Debts are improvised yet with a sense of place; recorded in his apartment, with mics occasionally picking up street sounds, Orcutt's playing expands on concrete moments, historical or temporary. There is a grounded, mono-chordal sanity even to his more free pieces, and his periodic non-word moans and shouts bring an eerie hoodoo feel to the set (which The Wire referred to at the time as Orcutt's "spooky boogie"), as if trying to channel the same angels or demons that Fahey tried to evoke with his motel room Tuva throat singing.

Of the eight tracks, a few deserve special mention. "Sad New From Korea," unrecognizable from the Lightnin' Hopkins song of the same name, is nevertheless similarly rooted in a haunting, bluesy drone. An insistent, down-strummed chord repeated over and over rashly as if he is trying to break the strings, accompanied by shamanistic moans in the same "key," it is like a field recording of an exorcism whose result is in doubt.

"Pocket Underground" is a rich but relatively short exercise, its flurry of abrasive scales developing into a web of ecstatic grace. "My Reckless Parts" is a manic raga, explicitly reminiscent of Fahey's motel room meditations, though more frantic--could his "recklessness" come from a seeking of harmony in chaos, like Japanese improv musicians who point to noise as a spiritually cathartic blast of pure form?

"Street Peaches" builds off a jagged funk phrase, the repetition becoming more deliberate and, notes isolated and allowed to ring; a strong hypnotic rhythm with depth and groove. The closer, "Cold Ground," with its haunting slide, spare notes, and brief ringing of the telephone, is the most immediate, grounded piece, and certainly the most overt reflection of Delta blues.

There is certainly no guarantee that Orcutt will remain with us now that he has resurfaced with new music. He has been active in the last two years in live performance, and if ever there was an era open to his musical ideas and experiments, it is this one. His late 2010 one-sided LP release, Way Down South (Palilalia) extends his ideas further, perhaps signaling a musical second wind. With five jagged blues tunes often accompanied by unexpected, harrowing vocal howls that harkens back to the primal sources of the blues. If he does slip back into his life outside of music, this music will be found again and again in the future. His solo releases are a template for further uses of the blues and the guitar, and his nerve and trust in the moment of improvisational sound will always seem a totem to the guitarist who finds these records.

Orcutt's solo albums are available from Palilalia

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