Willie Reviews Bill Orcutt’s “Odds Against Tomorrow”

Willie Reviews Bill Orcutt’s “Odds Against Tomorrow”

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On guitarist Bill Orcutt’s second solo electric album, Odds Against Tomorrow, he plays blues that go nowhere. He seems perfectly aware of it and chooses to stay in an altogether lonely place. Here’s RPM’s review:

In a crowded field of guitar-wielding uncles who vamp for 12 hours each Saturday and Sunday, blues interpretations can start to lose their lustre. For that and other reasons, a solo instrumentalist must be so effortlessly compelling that they justify their place in our ears. We find that in guitarist Bill Orcutt, whose long career has led him through punk, jazz, and blues to his current solo electric phase. His erratic improvisation style is one you can identify a mile away. On his new album, Odds Against Tomorrow, Orcutt practices relative restraint with a series of original compositions and improvisations. It’s a front porch kind of album that delivers completely on the wholeness and dense, considered texture of the styles it references.

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Orcutt is, in many ways, most similar to a blues guitarist on this album, and his vision of the blues is not so far removed from the genre’s prevailing worldview. Orcutt’s playing moves fluidly and constantly, but it can’t conceal the absolute absence of any movement or advancement. Just like classic blues players insist that all is lost and we’re just killing time until the end, Orcutt works around and around and ends up back at the start. When Robert Johnson lamented stones in his passway and his inevitable demise at the hands of evil forces, he was still singing a formally consistent style of blues. Similarly, Orcutt’s idiosyncratic style conveys bleakness in the form of claustrophobic chambers of sound. He accomplishes this through many tracks that are led by a drone. On “All Your Buried Corpses Begin To Speak,” his deft fretwork is rhythmically interesting, slowing and then racing ahead when spurred on by some invisible force. Still, it’s one long sentence—an extended solo by design. The goal is less to present a narrative and more to explode a moment into its every detail (and possibly every bone, here).

In a similar way, when root movement seems to occur in the bass strings, he’s most often alternating between two octaves. It constitutes an illusory type of movement that is, in effect, another drone. The two notes of an octave mirror each other in a type of composition that can’t resolve because it never goes anywhere to begin with. “The Sun and Its Horizon” adopts a more classic Bill Orcutt feel with its increasingly unhinged fills in the main melody. And it does this between two poles—one high and one low. They guide the instrumental monologue, tugging it back and forth but amounting to no intentional harmony to shift the tone. Because this is the way Orcutt operates with these songs, he finds incredible ways to depart that don’t rely on any classical notion of harmonic movement.

One of those desperate departures is the trademarked Bill Orcutt note scatter. When improvising on a theme, he will often burst into a flurry of notes in and out of the piece’s scale, seeming to surprise himself as well as the listener. It’s this great release of energy that tells me I’m listening to Bill Orcutt: it sounds like the fiery, bubbling ravings of a hopped-up preacher. When Orcutt expresses his faithful truth, it’s angular and gnarly. On the title track, “Odds Against Tomorrow,” it arrives, as it always does, in the anticipatory moment just before the return to the theme (again, a fill). I imagine flat fingers slapping the fretboard angrily, but the electric guitar hides much of that input. However, we do know from his acoustic output that when he gets into this mode, he plucks the strings extremely hard, then violently lets them spring back. But on a restrained piece like “Odds Against Tomorrow” which takes shape as more of an air, he can only retreat into this mode for a second. It blends in with more traditional rock and roll vamping and noodling, but it’s certainly there.

Bill Orcutt, photo by Cyndi Felton

He finds another departure in duetting with himself. “Odds Against Tomorrow,” “The Writhing Jar,” and “Already Old” are multi-tracked and show off his thrilling struggle with himself! On “Already Old,” his accompaniment is, of course, subservient to the lead, but the two competing ideas only accent his ever-present desire to pull away. As much as he tugs against his own mild backing track, his louder, more active ego in the lead will always tire itself out. Spending his energy in any capacity does work for him, so it’s no surprise that he finds ways to create adversaries.

On this album of original compositions, Orcutt notably chooses to spend 90 seconds with a cover of “Moon River,” originally sung by Audrey Hepburn. After his previous self-titled studio album focused heavily on covers, this exploration sticks out curiously on the new record. He plays it relatively faithfully, deferring almost completely to the standard tune. In this way, his rendition acts as a reintroduction of the song form. Unlike the tight runs and confined spaces his sound lives in, “Moon River” is a familiar wall to lean against while taking in the rest of the album. If ever he loses you along the way, let this track guide you back to tender optimism so that it can be yanked right back out again.

Score: Making a scene at church because you’re “just bored,” leaving, then returning to apologize to everyone and sing the closing hymn, then finally getting all worked up again and passing out in anger near the altar.

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