Gary Lucas is an American, finger-picking guitar player of legendary status and slippery categorization, the sort of no-trend, shadowy, omnivorous weirdo for whom Northern Spy Records opened their doors in the first place. He left his stamp in the catalogs of Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley, and his technique is so virtuosic that — this is cool — once Lester Bangs asked him “which part” he had played on a solo live recording.
Cinefantastique, his first album on Northern Spy, is a collection of mostly recognizable film and television soundtrack music performed on solo acoustic or electric guitar, either live onstage or live in the studio. It’s all about no overdubs with Lucas, and he shows off his singular skill and style on these tracks, rearranging scores intended for full orchestras into music for one man with two hands. Lucas is clearly passionate about the relationship between music and film: he has sneaked soundtrack music onto past albums, toured alongside the Spanish Dracula film from 1931, made a whole record of Chinese 1930s and 40s pop tunes inspired by singers/actresses, and he’s already announced that Cinefantastique Vol. 2 is on the way.
It’s great to see an iconoclast release a labor-of-love-type record, but a part of me — maybe a dark part of me I should try to destroy — was initially frustrated that someone with such talent, the man who played “Flavor Bud Living” on Doc at the Radar Station (his minute-long guitar instrumental is, for me, still one of the most mysteriously powerful moments in the whole Captain Beefheart catalog), would take the time to lay to tape snippets of Vertigo, Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, South Pacific, and the freaking theme from Peanuts. I do not, under any circumstances, believe a musician must prove him or herself to such a nebulous, sinister-sounding group as “listeners with expectations,” but I must be honest that it’s only after a month of extensive listening to Cinefantastique that I am beginning to accept it on its own terms.
But, even on its own terms, the album can be rather slight. “Around the World in 80 Days,” “Sex and Lucia,” “Howdy Doody Time,” “J’accuse” (the only track with an overdub, a violin), and “Charlie Brown,” are pleasant but ultimately forgettable acoustic guitar tracks. They sound like… songs from film and television? Played expertly on acoustic guitar? He’s simply not in full-force, and you know it because, when he is, it’s something completely different to behold. “Sátántángo,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Casino Royale,” and “‘Our Love is Here to Stay’ from An American in Paris’” all burst and glide with glee, Lucas collapsing a whole orchestra’s worth of expression effortlessly into his steel-body guitar. Of the Takoma Records bunch, he most evokes Leo Kottke in his approach, rolling melody upon melody forward and upward with precision, warmth, and bounce. But there’s a clean angularity to it, too, maybe a hint of Beefheart’s exploding-note theory that separates him from the pack and makes him the New York downtown stalwart he’s been all these years.
One track was even immediate, the electric — as in electric guitar — “Vertigo / Psycho,” which may be the strongest track on the record. His reverb-inflected tone reveals a hypnotic, cyclical nature of the music and renders this seemingly overdone music new, drawing you inward, only to startle — like the movie — as he strangles his guitar on a dime into the shower-scene screech from Psycho. There’s a rawness to it that’s so well-crafted and right on that I can’t stop from going “whoa” every time it ends and the audience explodes into applause. His electric guitar is similarly on point on “‘Bali Ha’i’ from South Pacific,” “Fellini’s Casanova / Rosemary’s Baby,” and “Entr’acte,” which compares favorably to Erik Satie’s score when synced up to the 20-minute film.
There are a lot of great solo guitar records out there this year, many that are more forward-thinking and play better end to end — Alan Licht’s Four Years Older and Bill Orcutt’s A History of Every One come to mind — but Lucas is capable of a different, perhaps more technically intriguing, wizardry. One of the best guitarists alive.