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Boxhead Ensemble / Scott Tuma | Two Brothers / Hardagain (Truckstop / Atavistic)
As long as it is thoughtfully composed and imaginatively arranged and performed, I can get on with instrumental music reasonably well. I would always prefer songs, but instrumental works can engage this listener without, as with a poignant lyric, any great emotional involvement. I'm interested in music that can remain distinctly present, yet prove to be as ignorable as it is listenable, as Brian Eno explained how 'ambient' music should be. I've always loved dub reggae and certain electronica in the right mood, but have increasingly enjoyed guitar atmospherics in recent years. Loren Mazzacane Connors, mit den Tremble Kids, The Album Leaf, Rick Rizzo and Tara Key amongst many, have produced some startling and deeply beautiful guitar-based music, and are all worthy of investigation. These releases by Boxhead Ensemble and Souled American's Scott Tuma are linked not only in that they are entirely instrumental, have overlapping personnel, and are issued on the same label, but for two other tangible reasons. Firstly, they are perfect examples of what is occurring on the very fringes of Americana. Experimentalism is blossoming, as anyone who noticed the quiet Glitterhouse release of the largely electronic 'Host' album (by Walkabout Chris Eckman and Midnight Choir's Atle Bystrom), could attest. The second reason is intrinsically linked to the first, in that what we are hearing is exploration of, and meditations on, traditional musical styles - country, jazz, blues - and also tributes to the pioneers of same, just as occurs in more commercial form. Of the two, Tuma's effort is the most rewarding, creating a creaking, if-you-go-down-to-the-woods-today mood through wind-chime guitar figures, clattering percussion, wheezing things and carefully applied noise. As the sleeve notes of 'Hardagain' are somewhat opaque, track titles are assumed here, so it's either Beautiful or Beautiful Dreamer that opens. The style of John Fahey is the key, with gentle, rusty pluckings against a wall of distant distortion and harmonium. It's ten minutes of blissful sound and snatches of familiar melodies; The Band's 'Last Waltz' theme apparently attempting to hack it's way through dense cobwebs, as it indeed does elsewhere. Jerry Garcia's pining Love Scene sketches for 'Zabriskie Point' are evoked on You, but the raunchy action appears to have shifted from Death Valley to a dark and dusty projection room, as the sound of loose film at reel's end flaps throughout. What is definitely the title track provides the most fully formed tune; lilting and funereal like a New Orleans death march, but the mood is changed entirely on the transcendent porch music of Spring, where deftly stroked strings ease and tease. There are moments of grace and darkness here, and a definite feeling that the listener is being invited to explore his or her own historical visual ideas to the soundtrack presented. I'm sure that Michael Krassner had this very intention also, when piecing together the all but impenetrable 'Two Brothers.' Under his direction, the stellar line-up that includes Tuma, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, and Mick Turner and Jim White of Dirty Three, take 19th Century American musics and Civil War history as their starting point. From the off - Still - it is apparent that this album is going to be a gruelling experience, and that is exactly what it proves to be across 63 minutes of greatly challenging sound that embraces the spirit of improvisation, and it is this that is the key to its failure. Guitars, violins and cellos scrap and stab, meandering with freedom wherever they so desire, melody abandoned entirely to all but the most mathematical musical ear. Dominated by the depressing 18-minute title track, 'Two Brothers' is unsettling and irritating and grotesque - but perhaps that's the point? The period in U.S. history that Krassner has attempted to evoke was ugly, brutal, and drenched in mud, blood, whiskey and tears, so on such a level, it is pained and haunted. But as a visceral aural experience, I am moved only to fetch the aspirins.

Tom Sheriff
November 2001