With Versions, the second LP from guitarists David Daniell (San Agustin) and Doug McCombs (Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day, Brokeback), the idea of instant composition is brought into an interesting position. Their first LP, Sycamore, was culled from seven hours of tape, and Daniell and McCombs sculpted a sprawling canvas of improvisation into four short pieces and 40 minutes of music. In addition to guitars and electronics, drummers John Herndon, Frank Rosaly, and Steven Hess were part of the original proceedings. It’s not a particularly new concept — Teo Macero did much the same thing with Miles Davis’ late-60s/early-70s electric masterpieces starting (at least) with Bitches Brew — and the editing of an improvised take (perhaps placing the “better” solo in a tune) is a longstanding tradition. But the result is what’s interesting; whereas the musicians took Macero’s role on Sycamore, Bundy K. Brown (Tortoise, Directions in Music) was given the opportunity to present his reading of the same seven hours of music on Versions.
The upshot is that Versions is a different record, and it would be unfair to compare it to Sycamore; rather, the music that Brown built up from the raw material is a new, collaborative venture. Brown’s influence is gradually felt and not even obvious from the album’s first moments. But the closing “Ley Lines” is a wonderfully created piece, and as the album builds incrementally to it, the music has a particularly Bundy-ish vibe. Shimmering guitar strums and organ sound glitchy at first, then build to a massive wash from which electronically altered beats rise to the surface. Reverb-heavy and isolated, the drums take on a central focus at five minutes in, augmented by looped and overlaid harmonic plucks and pedal steel fragments. Before long, sunny, slinky Afro-funk/High Life passages emerge out of what is, essentially, a sound mass constructed with real elegance, returning to sparse glitches at its 15-minute conclusion.
The opening “Burn After Reading” begins as an unadorned framework of tumbling toms and jagged guitar work, Brown teasing out subtle and intricate rhythms from what could otherwise be a fairly austere landscape. Once the percussion falls away, the leavings are in cottony electronic fuzz, tendrils of feedback and splayed guitar loops. The piece closes as it began, with McCombs’ and Daniell’s strums, albeit more plaintive and bluesy. “Rialto” harps on spiky feedback atop rolling, thick waves of guitar sludge, with loose backbeats and thin, upper-register wails coursing through a collective impasto.
This exquisite double-LP set also includes two live, unedited improvisations (recorded in Knoxville and Montreal in 2010) that serve as rather interesting comparisons; Knoxville adds drummer Jason Boardman to the mix, while the Montreal performance is sans percussion. Boardman’s simple-yet-rigorous groove adds a metronomic pulse to a swirl of feedback and organ drones; as the duo gradually stretches out, Daniell holds back ever so slightly from potential caterwaul. The Montreal piece is airy and spacious, brightly lit and focusing on long, upwardly turned tones and inverted jitter, offset by faint crowd noise. When the duo builds to a noisy crescendo, it’s subtly arrived at and tinged with psychedelic beauty. The difference with the live improvisations and Bundy K. Brown’s re-compositions is that crescendos are not a given, and their directions seem more circular and hard to pinpoint than within a more immediate setting. Whether sublime or quizzical, the work of David Daniell, Doug McCombs, and their like-minded collaborators has resulted in a pair of fascinating albums.