The 24-year-old Daniel Bachman makes solo acoustic guitar music inspired by American folk traditions, the history and geography of his native Virginia, and the deep bodies of work of precedent guitarists like John Fahey and Jack Rose. Despite his limited years, Bachman is already something of an old hand, with a number of records to his name and many road miles logged behind him. On Orange Co. Serenade, his first album for the North Carolina-based Bathetic Records, Bachman presents eight songs that range across a bounty of feelings and moods.
Bachman has a gift for naming his tunes — it’s rare that an album has so many neatly appropriate and evocative song titles. On “Coming Home,” first released as a limited 7-inch by Singles Club, Bachman picks out a plodding but steady rhythm on the sixth string of his guitar and unwinds a warm and familiar melody with his slide, eliciting movement — whether by train, car, or foot — over a dusty country landscape. “Blue Mass,” which opens the record with a feverish drone that gives way to a meandering, searching guitar exploration, seems explicitly spiritual, but also does a fair job of capturing the dark strangeness of the archaic American remedy referenced in its title. “Up and Down the C&O” is a lovely piece on which Bachman’s picked notes barrel and roll along, capturing the motion of an old steam engine locomotive. But the song — with its droning, contemplative opening — is also couched in mystery, bringing to mind the image of the phantom of a long-retired train, perhaps disappearing into the Blue Ridge Tunnel at dusk, never to appear on the other side.
Solo acoustic guitar music is a relatively limited language. Bachman is working in a tradition that has existed for at least half a century without much in the way of development or change. Consequently, the guitarist who chooses this mode has nothing to rely on but him or herself — the music sinks or floats on the technical proficiency, compositional prowess, uniqueness, and expressional power of the individual’s playing. Bachman is clearly a talented, lively guitarist, but many of his songs seem like blueprints. A track like “Pig Iron,” for example — with its driving rhythm and bluesy lick — feels more like a single-note genre exercise than a compelling, multifaceted whole, and the stormier, thornier “And Now I am Born to Die” doesn’t have the payoff one might expect for a song with an extended playing time. In an interview from late 2012, Bachman worried aloud that his guitar playing was “too technical, and not [as] emotional as it needs to be.” I don’t know if he still feels this way, but it seems to me a fair self-criticism.
Bachman has said that John Fahey’s sixth album, Days Have Gone By, is a very important record for him. He ends Orange Co. Serenade with a rendition of “We Would Be Building,” the same hymn Fahey concluded his own album with. The differences between the two versions shed some light on both Bachman’s strengths and weaknesses. The Fahey version is echo-heavy, as though it’s coming to us from the bottom of a well, and Fahey modulates his somewhat terse playing from loud to soft, giving the song a measure of variation and a slightly skittish energy. But if Bachman’s rendition lacks some of the weird dynamism and lurking depths of Fahey’s, it is brighter, statelier, earthier, and just as pretty.