The Willies – Bill Frisell
Nonesuch Records 79652-2
Most of Bill Frisell's latest work has been categorized as Americana. As
much as the backing instrumentation suggests this, Frisell's guitar tone and
phrasings have consistently skirted away from banal, folk musings. On
Good Dog, Happy Man, as the band created a pedal steel based folk
undergirding on "Shenandoah", Frisell's melodic counterpoints searched out
the song's connotations. As he investigates the milieu, the music's idyllic
foundation never becomes completely transubstantiated, as Frisell simply
opens and views the surroundings, rather than annihilating.
Critics have often harshed on Frisell for his approach, as the music sounds
too unfeigned for a man who spent his early days performing with John Zorn.
While, over the years, Frisell has analyzed antiquated musical forms, his
style has consciously remained intact, as watered down as the sound appears.
In an interview, Frisell commented on learning to "take the sort of thing
that Jimi Hendrix might have done, but sort of miniaturize that sound and
have it be on the same dynamic level as an acoustic instrument". On The
Willies, much like Frisell's other work, he creates textures with
subtlety, and surrenders pyrotechnics for a restrained approach. Throughout
the subdued exterior are tones with a discordant quality, which nip at the
songs' structures. He hasn't left his past as much as learned how to use the
sound with some matured patience.
While the critic maybe wont to vociferously articulate the "postmodernity"
of Frisell's constructions, he lacks the musical insouciance to adhere to
the inherent irony of the postmodern mythos. Whether performing "Moon River"
(from Bill Frisell, Dave Holland and Elvin Jones) or an aged
celtic-turned-bluegrass ode such as "Blackberry Blossom" (from The
Willies), the music remains unpretentious. A lack of speed likely
contributes to the audible sincerity. By slowing the song, Frisell sounds
pensive. Were he a writer weighing words, Frisell would be Marcel Proust:
unassuming and accompanying each literary allusion with trepidation for the
enormity of the synecdoches social significance. All of which ostensibly
conflicts with the contrived, dualistic (ponderous/humorous) work by
avant-jazz upon socially heralded mediums.
Therefore, rather than revealing the sociological conundrums which pall the
work, he instead offers the listener a confluence of aural paintings.
Frisell obviously suggests the rural and frontier existence: swarming mental
images of Appalachia simultaneously recall the echoes in the Grand Canyon
and/or a sunset in Big Sky country, where snow-capped peaks pierce magenta
skies. Simultaneous with such images are brief hints of Edward Hoppers
work, where stark streets, concrete monstrosities, and downtrodden workers
inexorably toil until the sun shimmers upon humanity's constructed skyline.
Both the rural frontier and the postindustrial landscape have become an
integral part of the American experience, fomenting different meanings for
specific songs with each generation's passing.
Maybe Frisell deserves the title "archaeologist". The term describes not
only the effect of the music, but also the philosophical implications of
Frisell's "visual" technique. According to the Oxford English Dictionary,
archaeology means, "the scientific study of material remains of past human
life and activities". Over the years, the role of the archaeologist has been
viewed as narrow. Images of singularly obsessed individuals in pursuit of
grandeur have become synonymous with the archaeologist. For example, upon
acquiring a new Roman urn, a scientific archaeologist inspects the types of
wines which were once housed in the urn, the different types of artwork on
the exterior, etc.. Eventually, with enough time and resources, she can
accurately expose a utilitarian object's movement through hundreds of years
before being interred in a war created junk pile.
Extending the metaphor to Frisell's visual manifestations, each song has the
scent of each generation, and thus the melody has a life more vast then the
perceived categorization allows. As a result, with The Willies,
Frisell has decided to expose the influential characteristics, and stylistic
advancements of the songs, up to (and including) modernity. By combining
clawhammer banjo, strange guitar loops and a loping bass, the album mines
the differences and the unique interpretations that aged songs – such as
"Sitting On Top of the World" – acquire as time passes; and thus reveals to
human beings the social impact of time upon meaning. In this way, Frisell's
The Willies offers modernity a far more culturally significant means
for inspecting history.