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E. Ryan Goodman: Halves

img  Tobias Fischer

The impact of E. Ryan Goodman's debut, Under the Lamp, was subtle, yet profound. A collection of twenty solo guitar pieces, many of them barely exceeding the one minute mark, it only fully unfolded its charm over repeat listens and on return visits. But it repaid that continued attention by opening up a wondrous and wonderful world drawing from blues, country, folk and involving both free and guided improvisation. Goodman's inspirations went back a long time, to pioneering legends like Mississippi John Hurt and Sleepy John Estes, but his sound was decidedly urban and of a feverish urgency. There was both something raw and refined about this work, a captivating simultaneity of beauty and dark secrets, direction and confusion, immediacy and intricacy, yearning and fulfillment. Pressed in a tiny print run of 100 copies, it by default limited Goodman's status to that of a musician's musician, catering to a core audience of aficionados, who would spend their lonely nights desperately trying to figure out how the replicate these fantastical sounds on their own fretboard. At the same time, however, the album was a statement of intent for more far-reaching endeavours in the future: What could have ended up a mere compilation of incoherent moments turned into a hallucinatory trip infused by a single mood.

While every bit as challenging and intriguing as that promising debut, Halves fully realises Goodman's intention of creating music which a lot of people could potentially enjoy. Already its title serves an a programmatic indication of this ambition: While Under the Lamp was essentially fully improvised, with the only reflection coming in at the stage of selecting the tracks and arranging them into an engaging order – an approach which, at the time, the guitarist referred to as „moody playing“ - Halves awards more than just equal importance to composition. That the two should now stand closely side by side on the album can hardly come as a surprise. Already in an interview in late 2008, after all, Goodman considered the two as each other's preconditions. Or, as he would put it on another occasion, improvisation was about honesty and about those happenstances in the stream of consciousness, whose inexplicable perfection and intuitive magic gave sense and meaning to the act of performing. At the same time, pre-prepared ideas, some of them initially repeated seemingly aimlessly for various bars, could act as an ignition to that state. It wasn't just academic to separate improvisation and composition – it was simply impossible.

And yet, on Halves, the two are clearly presented not just as each other's complements, but as contrasts as well. With the exception of impressionist opener „New Day Breaks“, a folk-guitarist's answer to the opening movement of Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, in which one can almost see the light flooding in through the half-opened blinds, the improvisatory moments have a slightly more edgy and pensive feel to them, making the process of transition within a piece transparent – you can literally hear how one segment is changing into another through discrete variations of a particular melodic strand or the sudden isolation of a harmonic idea. Often, too, as on the sparse and carefully sketched canvas of „Wild Badger“, rhythmical patterns and arresting grooves will emerge from a phase of reticence and searching, or as an inspired response to inquisitive lines. In immediate comparison, through-composed works like „Southward“ or „Halcyon Bluff“ are not just a decisive tad more seamless and to-the-point in their overall architecture, but also develop and re-interpret their themes over the course of their duration, creating a tightly knit quilt of internal references and a strong narrative pull. And yet, who knows whether the impression would actually be the same if it wasn't for the liner notes indicating precisely how each piece was created - with both eyes closed, it would be next to impossible to determine that „When Past is present“, with its blissful repetition of the same motif, constitutes a „composition“, while the brittle, uplifting and fluent moodwork of „Juke Joint“ was derived from a spontaneous suggestion.

This is because the polarity between improvisation and composition is not the only one making itself felt on Halves. In fact, one could argue that it is merely one of a variety of intriguing thoughts running through a kaleidoscopic work dominated not just by a pronouncedly open genre-politic, but foremost by the duality between two entirely different sessions: While one section of the material was recorded by Josh Wendelken at Emancipated Audio in Phoenix in 2009, the other was taped by Nadim Issa at Let 'Em In Music near Goodman's home in Brooklyn, New York the following year. The difference between the two is striking and of seminal importance to the album. In his work with Wendelken, Goodman is openly continuing the line established on Under the Lamp. Four out of the six tracks here are improvisations and just as on the former, the sound aesthetic is of a close-up, intimate immediacy, with the microphone picking up some of the sound produced by the body of the instrument and the movements and breathing of the artist. The music, too, maintains the sombre, slightly surreal and dream-like intensity of earlier work, with pieces seeming to massage a particular nerve in a bid of gradually revealing an inner truth. The portion realised with the assistance of Issa, on the other hand, has a far more polished and smooth air to it as well as an almost weightless, sensual and silky touch. Pieces are far more clearly structured and built around contagious hooks („Halcyon Bluff II“), dreamy ambiances („Melancholy Boogie“, „Almost Pannonica“) or a blend between delirious virtuosity and jazzy coolness („Monk's Corner“).

Rather than ending up sounding split down the middle, it is this simultaneity of different aesthetics which awards Halves its distinct identity and turns listening to the album into a veritable mind trip – openly indicated by the fact that rather than dividing his album into two separate sides, Goodman has shuffled the tracks and brought them into a completely organic order. Still, they are intricably related to each other, with an almost ghostly resonance building up between the two. Most of all, the dual nature of these pieces both intensifies the moods of respective pieces and softens their edges: Episodes of incisive picking are framed by works of alluring tenderness, while the pastoral sweetness of some cuts is counterbalanced by a tangy directness in some of the more confrontational endeavours.

There is always a fragile balance between spontaneity and planning, between following a sudden train of thought and shaping an album and most of the time, artists will opt for one or the other. Goodman, however, has both acknowledged these contrasts and arranged them in a fashion that makes them seem like inseparable twins. There is an increased sense of immediacy on Halves, which pulverises the polarity between the profound and the profane: Subtlety can be wonderful, after all, but so is music that shoots its arrows straight into your heart.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: E Ryan Goodman
Homepage: Lone Lamp Records

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