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Bill Orcutt - A New Way to Pay Old Debts

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Artist: Bill Orcutt

Album: A New Way to Pay Old Debts

Label: Editions Mego

Review date: Mar. 17, 2011

Guitarists can be a romantic bunch: Eric Clapton had Blackie, B.B. King his many Lucilles, and Willie Nelson’s played for decades with Trigger, a guitar so loved that he’s threatened to retire when it’s finally rendered unplayable. Bill Orcutt has his own long-term relationship: he’s owned a Kay acoustic since college, and when he returned to playing guitar in 2008, it was this instrument to which he turned. Orcutt’s said that the Kay was a practical choice, easy to play at a moment’s notice and less likely to bother the neighbors (this from the man who once shredded eardrums in Harry Pussy!). The decades-old companion has been repaired and modified, but while Orcutt has treated it with care (he has it detuned as not to damage a previously broken neck), when he plays, it’s as if the man and his instrument are endlessly at odds. His style sounds as much like wrestling with the guitar as playing it, and it’s tempting to imagine that Orcutt’s occasional vocal yelps are evidence that the Kay fights back.

Having played guitar in Harry Pussy, Orcutt’s already plied plenty of unnatural musical acts, having torn rock’s spine from its body and electrified the corpse to the delight of the hardiest of listeners from 1992 to 1997. On A New Way to Pay Old Debts, Orcutt is at it again with a four-string guitar, this time bending blues and folk in ways they weren’t originally meant to go. Wrinkled riffs twist like wayward roots, punctured by thorny protrusions and unexpected potholes. Notes are warped and strangled, rhythms bruised and battered, all resulting in a sound at the outer edges of the Americana family tree, residing on the gnarled, out of the way branches reserved for the inbred and the eccentric. This is primal music, but not in any stripped-to-its-essence kind of way. This is the American guitar tradition, left as an infant to fend for itself, surviving by instinct for decades in an increasingly hostile, polluted and inhospitable world. It’s the progeny of numerous traditions sent to the sewers and emerging years later, mutated, appendages in the wrong spots, familiar phonemes rendered incomprehensible in a language all its own. The traditions informing Orcutt’s playing, from those of pioneering bluesmen to John Fahey and other forward-thinking folk, are referenced in fleeting fragments, like images distorted and barely visible in a broken mirror.

A New Way to Pay Old Debts is recorded as rawly as it is performed. An old DeArmond pickup and closely-stationed microphone combine to give Orcutt’s guitar acoustic a jagged edge, blending the electric and acoustic output from the Kay. There’s no attempt to hide that this is the most unpolished sort of home recording; along with the distortion of the music’s highs and lows comes a series of intermittent accompaniments from Orcutt’s surroundings. A police siren, ringing telephone, some indistinct voices, and the sounds of nearby traffic are charming additions to the record’s rustic tone.

Originally self-released in an edition of 500 LPs, A New Way to Pay Old Debts has been given the ones-and-zeroes treatment and augmented with two songs from an earlier 7” and a quartet of previously unreleased tracks. A New Way... didn’t need reinforcements, and taking in all 14 tracks in succession can be tough going, but a little bit of overkill doesn’t dull the bracing energy of Orcutt’s kinetic, four-string idioglossia.

By Adam Strohm

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