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Bill Orcutt
A New Way To Pay Old Debts Noel Gardner , February 15th, 2011 05:44

By all logic, it has to be a contradiction to try and seek out a context for a record that basically sounds like nothing else, right? And yet, when the truism has it that there’s nothing new under the sun in modern music, it seems like the dutiful thing to do. Somewhere, you figure, there must be a predecessor to this, the second solo album by Bill Orcutt, released on the Austrian label Editions Mego. Well, there’s one at least: the vinyl edition of A New Way To Pay Old Debts, which came out on his own Palilalia label in 2009. This CD pressing ups the track count from eight to 14, adding two tracks from a near-unobtainable seven-inch and four entirely unreleased flesh-hunks. None of which take us closer to figuring out quite what the precedents are for these action paintings of malformed acoustic guitar thrashing.

Bill Orcutt has a past, in Harry Pussy, an artful if obnoxious band from Florida who deconstructed punk and hardcore into something free and eminently unmoshable. You don’t need to know Harry Pussy to become cocooned in this album, but if you do, blobs of DNA from that band’s catalogue are there to be spotted within his violently complex playing. The main difference is that it’s 100% acoustic, and informed by the oldest American blues. A genre that has been patronised, reclaimed and plain mangled for decades now, but never like this – feasible influences such as John Fahey and Loren Connors appear conventional next to clawing blurs such as the title track and ‘High Waisted’ (I don’t know what’s generating the distortion in the closing passage of this, but it sounds like a Dictaphone recording of Whitehouse).

Mastered at chronic volume but unfussily recorded by design, near a busy street, Orcutt’s only just began hacking away at the intro of ‘Lip Rich’, the first track, when a phone rings. His playing is still recognisably blues at this point – when I say ‘recognisably’, I mean to acolytes of heritage blues, the kind of dudes that attend the local club in your town every week. Without any disparagement intended, it’s a fair guess that most of A New Way To Pay Old Debts is going to be way outside their frame of reference. Orcutt has said the album was primarily improvised, and I’ll not pretend to be able to spot the exceptions: tracks are structured insomuch as Orcutt repeats a motif until it’s hammered almost fully into the soil, but there’s no semblance of chorus or middle eight or coda in any of these songs.

Even the appearance on the tracklisting of ‘Sad News From Korea’, as done by Lightnin’ Hopkins, is pretty much a red herring – a common ancestry is there, the bluesman’s single-note twangs given an extra coat of rust and a loving disrespect, but it’s questionable whether Hopkins would recognise his own creation if he were alive to hear it. What is considerably more authentic is the actual tone Orcutt wrenches from his guitar, a vintage Kay acoustic with a DeArmond pickup. Much like Hopkins used himself, in fact (I’ll cop to looking that up, before you start thinking that I’m fronting like a blues expert), with the crucial exception of Orcutt’s guitar being downtuned and having no A or D strings. The result is an instrument that effectively plays rhythms rather than melodies, and does so with a grievous rawness that’s magnified by the speed and density of our man’s playing.

Okay, let’s scrabble for that context, if only for the benefit of the (skim) reader who wants a laundry list of names to give them a clue as to whether this meets their approval, and for the reviewer who wants the same list to bestow on him a residual coolness missing from all other areas of his life. In one wing mirror there’s Skip James and Son House, in the other Derek Bailey and Mick Barr; Sonny Sharrock and Jeff Cotton of The Magic Band are close enough to read the rear window sticker telling them they’re too close. Not too much pressure, then, and granted Orcutt might blush at being placed in the company of those giants. And yet it’s pretty indisputable that he’s chanced on a sound that’s almost unique to him, and probably almost inimitable too. Very few guitarists manage something like that, and if these unmappable acres of Delta knotweed scare and infuriate any blooze trad-dads by the by, well I can’t imagine that keeping the Harry Pussy dude up all night with worry.