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William Tyler - Behold the Spirit

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Artist: William Tyler

Album: Behold the Spirit

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Nov. 22, 2010

Though he’s only about 30 now, William Tyler has played with most of Nashville’s alt.Americana A-list over the last decade. He started right out of high school with Lambchop, but has also worked with Silver Jews and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. He sometimes collaborates with Paul Nieuhaus of Calexico. Around the middle of the aughts, he played with David and Hamish Kilgour. Last year, working in the shadow of late John Fahey, he released an album of finger-picked guitar and electronic experiment under the name Paper Hats. His “Between Radnor and Sunrise” on the fourth volume of the Imaginational Anthem series was one of the disc’s highlights, grounded in American primitivism and played with precision and rigor, yet glazed over somehow with an aura of almost mystic wonder. It’s not an accident that he cites Peter Walker along with Fahey as an influence. Like both of them, Tyler uses the guitar as a pathway to the spiritual.

Tyler’s solo album, the first under his own name, experiments with the boundaries of acoustic guitar, at times incorporating bits of sampled noise, hiss and drone into his compositions, at others anchoring his playing in a countrified tradition of slide and swing. “Terrace of the Leopard King” is luminous. It might remind you, faintly, of Jack Rose’s “Cross the North Fork.” Yet, among its luminous runs, you can catch bits of mumbled speech fading in and out. There’s something arresting about this half-heard ordinariness in the midst of one of the album’s most radiant intervals. And that’s a running thread, by the way. Even in the most transcendent parts of this album, you can hear the sound of music being made – squeaks of string, thumps on guitar case, breath – along with the music itself.

There are some additional players on Behold the Spirit, a bit of brass in “Terrace of the Leopard King,” for instance. But fundamentally, even when Tyler is playing by himself, there’s a lushness and multiplicity about these songs that make it sound like more than one person’s output. Often this comes from the way he layers different guitar sounds on top of one another, as on stately “Cult of the Peacock Angel,” where ribbons of plaintive pedal steel wind through meshes and lattices of picking. Or, on “Green Pastures,” there seem to be three or four guitars in play, one picked, one played with a slide, one electric, and a piano for good measure.

Two cuts push hardest into a non-traditional, non-folk aesthetic. The first of these, “To the Finland Station,” begins with bowing that sounds less like a guitar than a distant and melancholy fiddle. A whistling echo at the back of this track accentuates a feeling of separation. You feel like you’re half-hearing, or maybe even half-remembering, a Celtic melody through a web of static. There’s a sense of loss built into the track, and it’s the least hummable cut on the album, and yet in some ways, it’s also the most memorable, the most striking. The other experiment is “Signal Mountain,” again taking shape slowly out of a fog of overtones. Here the bowed sound is lightened by glistening high accents of plucked guitar, which illuminate the piece like light coming through a window.

While he’s not afraid to tweak the form, Tyler often lets his compositions work within traditional parameters. Closer “Pontonoc” succeeds not through upending expectations but by subtly overfilling them. There is nothing surprising about this track aside from its beauty, with controlled shifts in dynamics and dead-on execution of complicated flourishes. The world is crawling with Fahey-loving acoustic guitar players these days — in large part thanks Tompkins Square — but ones as good as William Tyler are rare.

By Jennifer Kelly

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