Sam Moss – The Moon Tears It Down

Sam Moss - The Moon Tears It Down

Sam Moss - The Moon Tears It Down

If Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon was just as virtuosic a guitarist as he is a songwriter, he might’ve left that legendary Wisconsin cabin with a collection of tunes not unlike what Sam Moss has given us on The Moon Tears It Down.  This assemblage of compositions for solo six-string acoustic guitar brings with it the same self-imposed solidarity and DIY ethos that made last year’s For Emma, Forever Ago such a success.  It’s raw, intimate, occasionally lo-fi, and often brilliant.  But whereas the arresting beauty of Emma was the result of Vernon’s decision to go live the hermit life out in the woods, Moss’s music is (ironically) the product of a fast-paced urban environment and a formal, conservatory-style training.

A student at Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music, Moss has been producing a prolific amount of material (4 albums and counting) over the past year and half, all with just a single axe.  Much like Victor Wooten successfully did back in the early 90’s with his debut A Show of Hands, Moss’s latest offering is meant to show off the dizzying – and at times, jaw dropping – scenarios that can result from a very simple M.O.: go into the studio and lay down all the parts (melodies, harmonies, bass lines) by yourself with no overdubs.  In the hands of someone with less technical acuity, a disaster would surely await, but Moss’s affinity for the likes of guitar greats like Leo Kottke ensures a mastery of the instrument that resounds throughout the album’s six tracks.

Opening cut “Fractures” continually flirts with the Phrygian mode, lending it a notable Middle Eastern quality.  The composition is built around thickly textured chords that drone and fade out, all the while allowing for exotic solo passages in between.  Approximately two minutes into the tune, Moss gathers some momentum and pushes the song out of the doldrums by initiating the first of many grooves where all the musical elements are multi-tasked, thanks in large part to some plectrum handiwork and creative open tunings.  There’s a passing sense of hopefulness that comes across as Moss’s fingers dance across the entire length of the fretboard, only to return to the point of origin and leaving the song unresolved.  He may play an instrument that’s synonymous with folk music, but it’s clear on “Fractures” that Moss is likely the type of guy who relates more to Bach and Mozart than he does Dylan and Taylor; these are “pieces” or maybe even compositions, but definitely not songs.

“A Minor Storm Rising Up” juxtaposes the lagging moodiness of the previous track with a newfound sense of desperation.  Set in F# minor – and once again in an open tuning (D,F#,A,F#,B,C#) – the song recalls both bluegrass and country music as Moss’s frantically picked strings create rippling arpeggios and emphatically strummed chords.

Though there is some deviation from the virtuosic fingerboard hopscotching (the atmospheric meanderings of “Lights” and the sublime chordal structures of “Miniature Dwellings” being noteworthy examples), Moss is obviously most at ease when his hands are moving as quickly as possible.  It makes for great ear candy, but we all know what’s been said about too much of a good thing.  Sadly, this is why The Moon Tears It Down feels a bit like flogging a dead horse; it doesn’t take long for Moss to prove his estimable chops, but by limiting himself to just one approach (open tunings) and one axe (a steel string acoustic), the infinite timbres and textures he could otherwise conjure end up going unexplored.  Still, at only a half hour in length, The Moon Tears It Down is succinct enough to avoid becoming burdensome or trite.  Moss undeniably has a lot of talent to go around, but only a fraction of it is fully realized on this album.

While Victor Wooten would tap, slap, pick, pluck, and thump a number of different basses over the course of an album in order to bring greater textural variation to his already superb melodies and song forms, Sam Moss hasn’t gotten quite that adventurous with his chosen instrument just yet.  One might argue that the charm of Justin Vernon’s quavering falsetto and sparse tales of isolation were exhausted long before Emma’s 37 minutes were up, and yet people continued to be in awe of its disarming sense of vulnerability.  It’s likely you’ll find a touch of the same qualities in the music of Sam Moss, too.