There is some serious Rite of Spring business going on in Guitar & Voice, the latest effort from experimental guitarist Eric Chenaux. He plays his electric/acoustic, nylon-stringed guitar classically, but with dissonance suited equally to Stravinsky and the psychedelic. The potential for this album is overwhelming, and indeed, there are entire songs that live up to that potential.
“Glitzing for Stephen Parkinson” is an amazing composition, blending baroque and improvisational jazz with an occasional, light-handed note of Scottish folk. “Simple/Frontal,” which blends seamlessly from “Glitzing,” swells with thrilling, high-end dissodance, sounding very much like a snapshot of a modernist epic.
Then there’s the poetry. “Amazing Backgrounds” starts the album off with a wholly satisfying, warped wah-powered guitar wail, and has these beautiful 20-second glimpses into the depth of Chenaux’s musical experiments; the way being sad in an unfamiliar, old church is beautiful. But his voice and lyrics — and the musicality therein — dampen the effect to the point of distraction. His butter-smooth voice seems less suited as an accent to his vision, and more like a CD your mom would bring home from Starbucks, entering at the lyric, “With the clouds/In the sky.” As maudlin as the lyrics are, with a small twist on the vocal sound — the slightest fuzz, an inspired pitch-shift — it could sound less trite and have a fantastically devastating result. Unfortunately, that’s not happening here.
The most pronounced example of titular guitar and voice not working is “Dull Lights,” a smooth, sad little don’t-leave-me jam. “Those aren’t tears/That’s not rain, hey/That’s the sound of the snow/Melting again this year,” Chenaux croons, the sound of tacky candles alongside apres-ski wine by a roaring fireplace. His trusty wah pedal ceases to be a boon to his innovation and instead makes any guitar ditty accouterment sound contrived. “DullLights” is a pretty apt title — compared to anything else on the album, it is the most sanded down.
“However Wildly We Dream” also comes close to hitting that sweet spot, with the same expert arrangement of his instrumental pieces only a little too smooth around the edges. He continues to arrange under his vocals, which is nice, but it’s still mostly left to quickly-arpeggiated, traditional chords. The effect is impressive, but a little heavy-handed. Occasionally, he does go into a minor cadence with his voice that works beautifully.
Chenaux has been forthcoming about his intentions toward balladry, and fittingly, “Put In Music” is where this is most apparent. But the cadence of the traveling bard is a little off, or tweaked, as with “medicine,” or the superfluous “quite” in “There is no pillow quite soft enough/to pillow this hardening life.” This could have been his intention, tweaking his rhythms as he does with guitar — but since he goes so much further with the guitar, here it comes off as indeliberate.
The later songs of the album, for the most part, let go of the balladry and focus entirely on the instrumentals. “Sliabh Aughty” is the crowning achievement of the album, a tidal wave of garbled Hendrix wails with all the meditative drone of a good bagpiper. “Le Nouveau Favori” combines classical trills with straining violin friction. “Genetalia Domestique” is a brief, but fitting coda: a beautiful, baroque wasteland.
There are beautifully delicate walls of noise in here — industrial sounds behind expertly-mangled acoustic guitar backed up by a spring-loaded wah and fuzz distortion. And it’s nothing new that musicians that appear classically trained make non-traditional music work (think Xiu Xiu or Antony and the Johnsons). As long as his guitar walks alongside the vocals in a comfort zone, these songs do not reach their full potential.