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Arts & Culture

Songs We Love: Bill Orcutt, 'Ol' Man River'

Bill Orcutt's self-titled album comes out June 30.
Bill Orcutt's self-titled album comes out June 30.

Bill Orcutt's guitar playing scrambles conventional logic. Filled with unpredictable fits and starts, off-key tangents and buzzing half-notes, and sometimes enhanced by the haunting accompaniment of his own wordless moans, Orcutt's work continually challenges notions of musical rules — or whether there should even be any. His deconstructive approach is clearest when he covers other people's songs, dissecting and disemboweling them in ways that don't just change their skin, but alter their basic DNA. He especially enjoys taking his stringed scalpel to tunes that stick in America's collective memory. His 2013 album A History Of Every One included radical reworkings of "When You Wish Upon A Star," "White Christmas" and "Zip A Dee Doo Dah."

Bill Orcutt, <em>Bill Orcutt</em>
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Bill Orcutt, <em>Bill Orcutt</em>

That album, like all of the solo guitar records Orcutt has made in the past decade, was performed on an acoustic instrument. For his new, self-titled LP, he shifted to electric guitar, and once again focused on cover versions alongside a handful of originals. He confronts some timeless standards — "Over the Rainbow," "The Star-Spangled Banner" — and forges new takes on "When You Wish Upon A Star" and "White Christmas." All of his interpretations are typically surprising, challenging and complex. But the album also finds him delving into a gentler, sparser mode than usual, treating many of these tunes with thoughtful pace and judicious execution.

Orcutt's take on "Ol' Man River," from the 1927 musical Show Boat, might be one of his gentlest tracks ever. From the outset, he moves deliberately, moderating his plucks in a halting manner akin to the style of minimalist guitar legend Loren Connors, with whom Orcutt once collaborated. You might not be able to make out the tune's famous melody, but Orcutt still plays quite mellifluously, pouring his electric guitar through a loop of mesmerizing notes. There is a burst of energy midway through as Orcutt plays louder and heavier, hammering at the song with a force that verges on anger. But he soon returns to calmer tones without losing tension. It's proof that, among his deep vault of guitar tools, restraint can be as powerful a choice as attack.


Bill Orcutt comes out June 30 via Palilalia.

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