With Drag City debut ‘Esker’, Chicago instrumentalist Bill MacKay has written a love letter to the guitar itself. It’s a collection of songs that have an obvious and deep reverence for the instrument that they’re crafted on; a trait that lends the album a warm sense of romanticism towards the acoustic guitar both as a muse and as the tool with which MacKay has crafted the record.
Bar some elegantly tinkling piano on opening track ‘Aster’ and the odd touch of percussion, the entirety of ‘Esker’ is crafted solely with guitars. Although it’s a fully instrumental set, MacKay has such a lyrical ease on the instrument that the album never risks losing the attention of it’s audience. Guitar based folk music – instrumental or otherwise – is positively thriving at the moment. Whilst that’s a very good thing, it can be a challenge for artists to standout in such a crowded field. MacKay manages to do just this through both the obvious sense of respect he has for his chosen instrument and also through the unique way he’s chosen to structure ‘Esker’.
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The album is an effortlessly engaging listen and that’s largely down to the way MacKay crafts vivid moods with his playing. Although a slight listen at a little over half an hour, the album still manages to fit 10 tracks into its run-time and, as such, most of the tracks are short – sometimes to the point of fleeting. The length of the album and of its component parts is more than a surface level characteristic of ‘Esker’, it has a surprisingly fundamental effect on the mood of the record. The brevity of many pieces here allows them to appear as impressionistic scraps of atmosphere and emotion rather than the fully formed, clearly defined folk songs that dominate the genre.
It’s not to say that ‘Esker’ is under-developed, though. The album’s shortest moments are tantalisingly brief certainly, but that’s part of the charm. ‘The Hollows’ lasts less than a minute – it’s a bite-sized snippet of music by anyone’s standards – but rather than frustrating with its fleeting run-time, the piece comes off as a shortlived but bright eyed flash of inspiration, an intriguing enigma that beckons its listener to come back for more.
These passing snatches of clarity lend ‘Esker’ qualities not unlike a musical diary; songs here are pithy impressions of mood and mindset rather than overt statements of intent. In a way, it’s an atmosphere perhaps shared most by the quickly fading flashes of meaning and mood found on Brian Eno’s most ambient efforts. This is perhaps where ‘Esker’ succeeds most; it conjures an atmosphere quite unlike most acoustic guitar records. While MacKay has all the technical skills to match his more traditional peers, ‘Esker’ is a record that succeeds mostly because of how different it is.
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Throughout the album, MacKay explores different schools of guitar work, all to great effect. ‘Candy’ observes the intricacies of ragtime through the sphere of cosmic guitar exploration, whilst the roadworn psych-blues of ‘Powder Mill Park’ affects through it’s unique atmosphere and attitude. The creeping ‘Persona’ meanwhile takes the album in a direction that has more in common with the most mysterious far-reaches of post-rock than folk music in any usual sense.
Only towards the end of the album does MacKay let his songs stretch out as far as they can; the 7 and a half minute closer ‘Scarlett’s Return’ drifts along at nonchalant pace, sighing lead guitar the centrepiece of an understated gem that certainly never negates the charm of the album’s shorter moments but does, at least, demonstate what MacKay can do with a long-form piece at his disposal.
‘Esker’ is a deeply intriguing record. It’s one that’s made with such love for the guitar that folk traditionalists will certainly find much to appreciate here, whilst those less versed in modern folk will find a record unique enough that it has an appeal transcending genre boundaries.