Chuck Johnson plays Nightlight Sunday, Nov. 20, at 9:30 p.m. with Fan Modine and Mark Holland. Tickets cost $5.
A Struggle, Not a Thought is the debut album by California-based, Raleigh-born solo acoustic guitarist Chuck Johnson. But this is a doubly misleading description; the strength of A Struggle, after all, stems from Johnson’s years of experience outside the cloistered context of solo acoustic music.
Johnson has alternately taken turns with electric and prepared guitars; as Pykrete, he’s long used synthesizers to corrupt rhythms and melodies, mutating recognizable moments into half-hour amphetamine sprawls. During his time in the famed electronic music program at California’s Mills College, he even composed a thesis piece for violin, electronics and the slenthem, a warm-sounding percussion instrument used by gamelan orchestras.
What’s more, Johnson has actually been releasing music for the better part of two decades, just not under his own name. In the early ’90s, when Chapel Hill was a scouted-and-touted indie rock hotbed, he led the aggressively twisted duo Spatula. His next two bands, Idyll Swords and Shark Quest, knifed through widely different instrumental spheresfor all of Swords’ pan-everything international voyages, Shark Quest offered refined if idiosyncratic odysseys through the sounds of the ensemble’s native South. There was the sprawling Micro-East Collective, a few brief projects on various compilations, some film scores and even a stint behind guitar with Superchunk. In fact, more than a decade ago, Johnson released an album named Solo Guitar. But that was under the name Ivanovich, and those 14 tracks were no-overdub improvisationsoccasionally noisy, often aggressive, more focused on sheer sound than story or song.
But A Struggle, Not a Thought clearly focuses on the compositions and what one well-practiced guitarist can say with them. It’s a definitive, deliberate break into a next phase. But, if the present and past always remain inseparable, some of the most important facets of this Johnson debut stem from what it took for him to get here.
“I guess what’s been different about playing acoustic guitar since putting it aside when I was in school has been thinking about how what I do with fingerstyle music is similar to what I’m after with electronics or composition, which is working with sound,” Johnson told me a year ago, explaining the link between his guitar music and the rest of his catalog. “It’s this idea of inviting something else into the room through the phenomenon that’s happening acoustically.”
The landscape of solo instrumental guitarists is one of players besottedand, therefore, sometimes hamstrungby their idols. The gravitational pull of John Fahey’s ghost often seems insurmountable in these circles, though he’s certainly not the only overexerted influence. There are those, for instance, who treat the lithe melodicism of Chapel Hill’s Elizabeth Cotten as gospel, and still others who treat the elliptical qualities of Robbie Basho and Sandy Bull as invitations to unfocused excess.
One of the most compelling qualities of A Struggle, though, is that Johnson feels beholden to no particular tradition. He glides among various styles, always taking care to not overstate any single influence or overindulge any particular theme. In less than two minutes, for instance, “A Slender Thread” lifts a blues-like stagger skyward, the space between each perfectly defined note feeling like another cloud passing. “The Flying Spire Don’t Have No Mercy” is a flurry of 12-string movement, with crisp lines breaking through a haze of droning notes. It’s the sort of one-guitar-symphony stuff British guitarist James Blackshaw has made his trademark, but Johnson adds an unquantifiable grit and restraint, as if his indie rock background stops him perfectly short of being too florid.
Indeed, Johnson’s 11 pieces here are extraordinarily evocative, alternately suggesting striving for some prize and nursing some sickly blues, both done with melodies that race like rivulets and cut just as finely, too. Johnson’s decades of experience show in the creases, making this not only one of the better acoustic guitar debuts of the year but also simply one of the better entries this year in a genre that’s arguably busier than it’s ever been. That past shows not only in the technique (see the so delicate harmonics at the start of “Caldera Wires” or the surreal syncopations across “Alight in the Nor’Easter”) but in the very deliberate development of Johnson’s own style. This isn’t a young man out to show that he’s replicated the style of a master; this is a veteran showing that he’s learned enough to build his own lesson book.
Last year, Johnson made his first public foray into the world of acoustic guitar releases with the track “A Struggle, Not a Thought,” which doesn’t actually appear on this new album of the same name. Johnson’s radiant, patient meditation was part of Beyond Berkeley Guitar, the follow-up to a set released four years earlier to document the Northern California guitar scene that continued long after Fahey started his Takoma label there in the ’60s. Tompkins Square Records chose Johnson’s track as the first single from Beyond Berkeley, meaning that Johnson became the de facto point man for the album’s press. Last June, Work and Worry, an interview-rich blog devoted to fingerstyle guitarists, interviewed Johnson about “A Struggle, Not a Thought” and opened with a string of technical inquiries: “Please describe the guitar you play on your track, how long you’ve owned it, where you got it. What is the tuning/ capo position (if any) on your track?”
Johnson dutifully answered those questions, but his answers not only started to stretch but also grew more impassioned when he discussed what he could accomplish with his guitartonally, structurally, compositionally. When he started talking about what the pieces meant and where they came from, Johnson tellingly delved into Arvo Pärt, Derek Bailey, Nubian musician Hamza El Din and German cultural theorist Aby Warburg, all in the service of explaining what this three-minute guitar instrumental meant to him. As it turns out, “A Struggle, Not a Thought,” like the album that takes its name, is a discreet distillation of the experiences, struggles and thoughts behind itmore a person, less a style.