Last of the Real Hardmen 10,000 Miles

[Birdwar; 2006]

Styles: rangy acoustic composition
Others: Six Organs of Admittance, Charalambides, John Fahey, Leo Kottke

Last of the Real Hardmen is the nom de guitare of Nottingham’s Chris Summerlin, whose recorded output thus far has been restricted to lathe-cut vinyl and CD-R. 10,000 Miles is his first full-on, label-pressed release, and it gives evidence of both his ample skill as a guitarist and his relaxed, mature sensitivity to song development and arrangement.

Summerlin’s songs have a decidedly pastoral feel thanks to their bobbling acoustic guitar lines, which roll through the occasionally dissonant atmosphere, spackling it with melody. Songs like “Forest Field Hyson Green” have their share of skronky intrusions, but these render the gentle finger-picked harmonies that remain all the more affecting. Slide guitar, organ, and the odd field recordings darken the mood and round out the mix with thick dashes of DIY ingenuity. If you’re at all familiar with the work of the other artists listed above, this is not a record that will present you with a lot of challenges. You won’t get shoved listening; the experiments may sound more like astute exercises. But it will nudge you, maybe just a little bit, just enough that you can’t be completely at rest as a listener/reader. For me -- coming off a weird binge where I chase minimal techno and drone down with old funk singles -- this one’s both savory and strident enough to be an engaging diversion.

Is 10,000 Miles an essential addition to a record collection? Will it be a part of any major cultural canon? No. Is it pretty, imaginative, and worthwhile? Without question. And as I sit and listen to Summerlin’s lyrical, clanging, and homemade bucolicisms, I start to think it would be better for all of us to seek out records like this one: tiny releases with personalities that have been so fastidiously shaped by someone who must know, know, that the chances of it being heard by even a thousand people are slim; records that spite their market share, that seem to unfold just for you because they were folded by just one person’s hands1. The public library will eventually have all the Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire and Shins records you could want. But in 10,000 days, this record could be effectively lost. John Darnielle was one of the first to show me that there’s something tragic and romantic and irresistible in that (first by [making->] such records, then by [lauding->] them.)

Pontification begins here: Is there a clue here to a way for us to rethink pop? Instead of promoting broadcasts -- one star speaks to everyone -- couldn’t it be more useful, more enriching, more “independent” for pop to be an ethos that motivates innumerable individuals, like Summerlin, to create and exchange for each other (populism in the place of popularity)? Pop as global and parochial at once. Albums that go penny instead of platinum. And while I want to sprint with these thoughts toward some kind of manifesto, it’s vexing to recognize that the paradoxical riches of 10,000 Days exist in part because of the willful ignorance of a culture that champions much less earnest work (and production processes) than Summerlin’s. My heart goes out to this record because I know it is small, but one of the reasons for its stature is that big ol’ culture. (I like where records like this can take me when I jettison that ‘Good music is good music’ thinking, even if, so far, I haven’t landed anywhere terribly original.)

1When I received my copy of Mount Eerie’s No Flashlight a couple years ago, it was sobering, flattering, and sweet to see Phil Elvrum’s handwriting on the box that held the vinyl. I recognized the handwriting from the lyric sheets of his other albums. The guy who wrote The Glow Pt. 2 had to write my name and the name of my apartment complex and my zipcode. Did he lick the stamps, too?

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