Chuck Johnson arrived late to the world of solo instrumental guitar.
For nearly a quarter-century, Johnson made music in a variety of collaborative guises, from the atavistic indie rock of his '90s tenure in Chapel Hill's Spatula and the subsequent globetrotting explorations of Idyll Swords, to the wordless Southern exotica of Shark Quest and his stints with Superchunk and composition pioneer Pauline Oliveros. He's explored vivid combinations of noise and beats in some projects, culled field recordings in foreign lands in others, and even provided much-lauded scores to films and television shows. For much of Johnson's career, music has often seemed about connecting with others.
But five years ago, Johnson—then, a recent graduate of the prestigious Mills College, with an MFA partly in electronic music—stepped out alone, his acoustic guitar in hand. He has since released two albums of absorbing instrumental reflection, where pensive sentiments rippled from picked strings and swept chords. Collectively, they seemed to represent the feelings of an individual. During "Alight In The Nor'Easter," from Johnson's 2011 debut A Struggle, Not a Thought, three minutes of hair-raising worry resolved into one sudden, elegant pause for calm. And for "On A Slow Passing In Ghost Town," from 2013's wonderful Crows in the Basilica, Johnson spoke with his fingers of spirits and nostalgia, a sinister suspicion lurking just beneath the memories.
But on the incisive and ponderous new Blood Moon Boulder, Johnson treats his material as a set of variegated musical mirrors, where the listener applies emotions to a consciously vague framework. Blood Moon Boulder seems to change every time you hear it.
The 12-minute "Corvid Tactics," for instance, skips between joy and the blues. Woeful slide guitar parts abut moments that feel like pure, colorful fantasy. As he thumbs the bassline with a little extra force, the piece's late, galloping section seems to tuck some great sadness inside its ostensible jubilation. And toward the middle, Johnson uses his slide to approximate the sound of a sarod, just before he trots back into the core of what could pass as an Appalachian folk beauty. As his technique stretches, so goes the emotional sweep of the work, now more inclusive than any one story or its sharer. Likewise, the thin, gossamer melody of "Inversion Layer" is delightful. High notes and a lilting, stepwise motion hint at a joyful conversation with an old friend. But Johnson's furtive, almost hesitant movement along the strings hints at something darker, like an old feud perhaps left unspoken but certainly not forgotten.
There's no better example of Blood Moon Boulder's interactivity than the brilliant closer "Private Violence," a duet for whinnying pedal steel and halting electric guitar. At times, it feels thoroughly depressed, as though the long, still spaces between Johnson's notes were the unadulterated essence of existential exhaustion itself. Alternately, it feels like liftoff, with the harmonies between the amplified strings suggesting a restorative calm before a return to reality. Johnson spent two albums sharing his own tales; he's now taken a rather distinguished turn by giving us a framework with which we can reflect on our own. However private it might have become, Johnson's music has, yet again, found a way to make public connections.
Chuck Johnson plays the Cat's Cradle Back Room Tuesday, July 28, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $8–$10, and Moms and Kym Register open.
Label: Scissor Tail Records
This article appeared in print with the headline "Alternate realities."