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Uncle Woody Sullender - Nothing is Certain but Death

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Artist: Uncle Woody Sullender

Album: Nothing is Certain but Death

Label: Dead CEO

Review date: May. 9, 2005

It’s darn near impossible to hear Woody Sullender’s banjo work without it triggering associations with bluegrass music. The banjo is one of those instruments so closely bound to a particular brand and style of music that even in the most unlike circumstances, it evokes a whole tradition. On Sullender’s latest album, Nothing is Certain But Death, the banjo is the primary instrument in a series of improvised solo pieces; Sullender’s free-ranging, haphazard excursions in the avant-garde form are amplified by the tensions of tradition simply through his choice of instrument.

Sullender has always played the artful deviant as a sound artist. His most recent recordings include a conceptual art object release called Sound Writing, a lathe-cat record also released on Dead CEO, and a stint with Fred Lonberg-Holm’s ensemble Lightbox Orchestra.

With highly live microphones poised to pick up the uncertain scrape of the taut banjo skin, Sullender has created a space for improv technique that introduces the human ambient sounds – like fret noise – exaggerated to their furthest extremes. In bluegrass, the banjo player uses a mechanically strict plucking technique called claw-picking to function as both a rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment. It’s an advantage of the banjo that the guitar simply doesn’t have because of its all-wood, hollow body. Sullender exploits the same feature on his banjo for that dual purpose, centering our attention on the banjo’s tonal percussive elements as added tools for improvisation. The rattle of the snare on the banjo’s body echoes Sullender’s scraped plunks, as Sullender moves from no-holds-barred, acrobatic leaps along the fretboard to break up long stretches of dissonant noodling.

Adding to the rich and subtle noise effects that the acoustic banjo gives the creative improviser, Sullender weaves processed electronic noise into his pieces. Several of the pieces from the album’s mid-section consist of harsh scraping against strings accompanied by equally harsh feedback. Matched with these are duets with Lonberg-Holm’s cello and the wordless vocal work of Carol Genetti. The interplay between the rustic and destructive allows Sullender to explore regions of improvisation most recently visited by artists like Nels Cline and Elliott Sharp. The mood one associates with Sullender, however, especially in the final two banjo-only pieces, makes one wish he’d play some gigs with his quirky, folk-influenced fellow Chicagoans in Califone and Loose Fur.

Nothing is Certain But Death is a Midwest kind of album through and through, full of ingenuity yet lacking a superficial artistic pose. Even listeners who haven’t acquired an ear for solo improv music might find themselves charmed by the freshness of Sullender’s project. One can feel its brightness and daring execution from the first pluck.

By Joel Calahan

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