Bill Orcutt made his name as guitarist for Harry Pussy, one of the most challenging and exhilarating noise bands of the 90s. The Miami rock deconstructionists abstracted hardcore into expressivist blurts, shedding riff and chorus like rocket stages in the liberation of hardcore’s signifiers: the inarticulate scream of rage, the instinctive drum thudding, and the sputtering guitar. After a hiatus of 12 years, Orcutt reemerged in 2008 playing the acoustic blues as fractured, modernist tone poems. He wields an acoustic guitar that has been broken and repaired, downtuned to keep from snapping the guitar’s neck, and with strings four and five removed. On his latest, How the Thing Sings, Orcutt summons from this compromised thing a droning, sputtering blues that is utterly personal, theoretically rigorous, skeptical of tradition, and completely enthralling.
How does the thing sing? The guitar sings with rattling, buzzing, open strings and the clash of pick and steel. On this album, recorded live at his home in San Francisco, Orcutt plays his acoustic guitar like a percussion instrument. It is a music of consonants, produced less by the note sounded in the resonator of the guitar than the sound of pick striking string with the agitated rhythm of the strumming right hand, rather than the more discerning fingering of the left. Orcutt’s guitar sings without breath, in a consonantal, sub-semantic, nonsensical language. On the title track, melodies tangle and burst, low E string worried like a rotten tooth. “A Line from Ol’ Man River” is a 14-minute novella of softly sounded strings and hushed moans, punctuated by tolling open strings that snarl like live wires.
How does the thing sing? The human thing sings with clattering teeth, belching gut, slapped cheek, just as much as it does with lungs and lips. Orcutt calls his barbed style “hiccupping,” referencing this sub-semantic speech of the body, and he accompanies his guitar with mewls, quavers, and groans. In “The Visible Bosom,” portentous chords and flurries of notes frame a self-portrait of grunts and winded silences. Both Orcutt’s guitar and voice are characterized chiefly by their stutter. Orcutt gives us the blues as played by Gertrude Stein, structured by repetition, syntactic play, and the uncommon melody of hindered advancement, rather than semantic meaning.
The cover depicts a collection of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar picks arranged into that quintessential modernist form, the grid, on a white background, but Orcutt’s music is utterly Romantic in its expressivism, in the authority it gains from the presence of a living human performing these songs in a specific moment of time. Orcutt seems not to be picking out notes, but letting his hands move restlessly across the fretboard as he strums, as his body embraces a wood box filled with vibrating air. “Heaven Is Closed To Me Now” is the most instrumentally austere song on the album and doesn’t have any audible adlibs from Orcutt himself, but the space of its performance is palpable as Orcutt summons four-note psalms of loss out of the ambient sounds of the room. Perhaps the meaning of Orcutt’s highly personal blues is not to be found either in the sounds of his guitar (fingered or struck) or in his voice (sung or grunted), but in the exertion and motions of a live body recorded in real time and space: the blues as dance.