Monday, November 23, 2009

Alternate Liner Notes: Patty Larkin's La Guitara

Some artists feed your thoughts back to you. When Barbara introduced me to singer-songwriter Patty Larkin around the turn of the century, I knew this was a grownup who had watched the same craziness that I had during the first thirty years of my adult life. I thought of rock-and-rollers, born within toilet training of 1950, that moved me, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Winwood, Mark Knopfler, David Johansen, Jackson Browne, and wondered why I’d never heard of this one.

At the end of her performance of “Don’t” on her live compilation, A Go Go, Larkin says, “I believe black leather is optional. I believe girls can play guitar. I believe it’s not butter.” In her liner notes for guitar anthology, La Guitara, she writes, “It’s so over. This - ‘There are no girls/women/chicks (god help us) who play guitar.’ This - ‘Why are there no great female rock guitar players? Must be genetic.’ This is the eye opener.” La Guitara is in support of Larkin’s thesis that “girls can play guitar.”

For a while I argued with Larkin. Of course girls can play guitar, but they don’t play the kind of guitar that rock gods play. Rock and roll is cheaper, schmaltzier, more accessible. A jilted twenty year-old boy recognizes the bombastic grief of Clapton and Allman’s “Layla,” turned around by Bobby Whitlock’s piano solo, and resolved with a calmer guitar bridge, one that feels like the you just gave that last sighing sob. Don’t get me started on Nick Drake or Tim Buckley. Emotionalism -- and familiarity -- that doesn’t have much to do with virtuosity -- Clapton and Allman notwithstanding -- make guitar gods more common than goddesses, but Larkin has enough to claim a spot in the pantheon, and lyrically she’s at least up to Lou Reed-Rhymin’ Simon level.

I was skeptical about the other guitarists on La Guitara. There used to be a lot of Leo Kottke records in a house where I lived, and I expected the record to be expert wallpaper. Some of La Guitara is dry, and a lot of it isn’t rock, but repeated listening has me going, “Whoa...dude!”

Wu Man opens with an “Invocation” on the pipa, a Chinese lute, dating from twenty-two hundred years ago. The tune is fairly Asian-sounding, but accompaniment and studio technique give “Invocation” a modern and western sound. This is the toughest nut for me to crack. It’s also short, and feels like a curtain opener, a stately, mysterious procession of unresolved phrases, over a bass drone, and against various muddy bells and electronic effects.

Sharon Isbin plays a classical “La Catedral: ii Allegro solemne,” by Augustine Barrios Mangore. Does it count if you didn’t write it? The Cathedral is a good name for the piece, and it makes me imagine column after column marching toward the altar, and Gothic ribs soaring overhead. There’s mystery to this piece as well, but the mystery is resolved again and again, perhaps as an allegory of faith.

Patty Larkin plays my favorite piece on the album, “Bound Brook.” Bound Brook is a town in New Jersey, thirty or forty miles west of New York city, but I’m guessing the song is named after the city’s namesake stream, which flows through a swamp. The musical “Bound Brook” is a studio piece with Larkin playing at least two guitars. She opens by repeating the same phrase several times. Something about the melody or the recording makes this sound antique. After establishing the vamp, Larkin plays over it on an electric slide guitar. A violinist friend of mine once wondered why we electrify guitars. To get this kind of color. The lead switches to rippley fingerpicking, still over the vamp, silver filigree against the slide’s satin, then back to satin.

Memphis Minnie takes us from faux antique to 1932 -- complete with static hiss -- in a record cut with Kansas Joe, “Let’s Go to Town.” The song is an acoustic twelve-bar blues instrumental with a lot of variety. It bounces like a flivver heading down a bumpy country road on Saturday night.

Mimi Fox takes us from Northern Mississippi to what's gotta be Manhattan, with “Lady Byrd.” It’s an unaccompanied jazz piece on electric. It’s pretty abstract, but about the time I was ready to start singing Rodgers and Hart’s “I Like to Recognize the Tune,” Fox hits us with the melody. It’s very little-black-dress-and-martini-esque.

Kaki King’s “Kewpie Station” rocks. One girl, one guitar, and lots of melody and percussion. King contrasts her string snapping and slapping, harmonics, and bass-string melody, with more familiar-sounding fingerpicking. Kewpies were cloyingly cute baby dolls and a series of illustrations by Rose O’Neill in the Ladies Home Journal, circa 1909. I didn’t hear one of them in this song.

Ellen McIlwaine, likewise rocks on “Sidu,” but differently. McIlwaine was an American who had Jimi Hendrix in her band for a while, and whom I’ve vaguely included in that British milieu that included Burt Jansch and Richard Thompson. This tune is a raga-like slide guitar tune (a Guild steel-string head shows in the photograph). It’s very world-music, with a scat vocal that sounds like a muezzin in heat.

Badi Assad (say the dees like jays) plays a Sergio Assad number, “Preludio e Toccatina.” We are introduced with a soothing, Spanish-sounding passage that could be the “quiet chords” in Jobim and Lee’s “Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars.” Soon, though, we’re caught by an ascending, almost shrill, scale, and we know something else is going on here. There are suspense and importance, and nostalgia, sometimes childish melodies, with the guitar singing two strong parts. Assad teases us with a long ending, and finishes with a chord and a slap. Is this song about sex?

Alex Houghton plays “The Bear” with bass, drum, and loop accompaniment. “The Bear” lumbers playfully, exploring its range, but constantly forges ahead. “The Bear” is one of the two or three prettiest tunes on the album, and the most rhythmically interesting.

Vicki Genfan’s “Joy” is a reflective tune. Genfan is a fingerpicker, and a string tapper. Harmonics also figure prominently in this composition.

Muriel Anderson contributes a piece by Isaac Albenz, “Rumores de la Caleta.” I tried to translate the title, but wound up guessing that it means “sounds of the cove.” If it does, it’s apt. This is another classical piece, and could represent lapping waves and offshore breezes.

Rory Block contributed an original, “Guitar Ditty.” Block, the daughter of a Greenwich Village sandalmaker (!), discovered the blues at fifteen and might be expected to provide a cover by one of her Delta Blues mentors. This is a slide piece and a blues. When Patty Larkin said “I believe girls can play guitar,” Block had to be at the top of the list.

Jennifer Batten. “Whammy Damage.” Operatic metal. Storm and fury. Hammers. Pull-offs. Slides. Distortion. Phantom of the Opera on acid. No accompaniment. This is the next-to-last song on the album, and Larkin had to be thinking “Nobody expects a chick to play like this.”

Elizabeth Cotten, 1895-1987, closes La Guitara with her tune, “Wilson Rag.” Cotten composed the folk-instrumental standard, “Freight Train,” and you can the same writer's voice on “Wilson Rag.” There’s a powerful contrast between this song and the previous one, and Larkin probably finished with Cotten to say, “Here’s one you'll like. Bet you didn't know a girl did it.”

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