Bill Orcutt – A New Way to Pay Old Debts & Way Down South

Bill Orcutt - A New Way to Pay Old Debts

A New Way to Pay Old Debts LP (Palilalia – 2009) reissued as A New Way to Pay Old Debts CD (Editions Mego – 2011) and Way Down South one-sided 12” LP (Palilalia – 2010)

These two recordings can be dealt with as a unit, if like me, you’re a new convert to Orcutt’s work. I was aware of his 90s noise band, Harry Pussy, without particularly paying a lot of attention to them. The density and intensity of their relentless freeforming can be jawdropping – but I have to confess that for me they are not a band I am ever likely to find myself thinking about actually listening to.

Fortunately, my friend George – who has never quite given up on recommending Harry Pussy to me – put me on to the first of these two LPs. Representing Orcutt’s recent return to public playing and recording after a long lay-off, these two releases  are another matter entirely. The playing is just as intense, but I find both records utterly compelling. Orcutt plays a series of improvised or semi-improvised pieces in these two sets. They are primarily instrumental, accompanied by the odd bit of hollering and moaning, and a few noises-off. The recordings are raw and noisy.

I have a low tolerance for instrumental and improvised music, so at this point, if you haven’t heard or seen any of Orcutt’s playing, its worth noting that the combination of ‘instrumental’ and ‘solo guitar’ should not be mistaken here for the current vogue for Fahey-worshipping, delay-fixated tedium. Be reassured. Orcutt is not making that sort of music.

Bill Orcutt - Way Down South

This is expressive, furious, frenetic guitar-playing. Blasts of cascading notes are hammered out, fizzing and buzzing from of the speakers. Strings pop and thrum. Moments of stillness are located, and held very briefly, before skittering, stumbling riffs take shape – and then collapse in upon themselves. Each piece contains sufficient abandoned-at-birth guitar figures to launch a dozen new bands for Touch and Go.

Skimming through reviews of Orcutt’s work elsewhere, three themes prevail: comparisions to Derek Bailey, discussions about whether this is the blues or not, and near-fetishistic descriptions of his technical set-up. On the latter point, it appears to be a vintage Kay acoustic guitar, minus the A and D strings, with the bottom string tuned down, played with a pick-up while a single mic recording picks up the amplified and unamplified sounds together. It is such an unusual, unearthly, chaotic sound, that one can understand the curiosity about how it was achieved. Orcutt’s playing is [literally] abrading the body of the guitar that he uses, wearing it away to nothing.

On the comparison with Bailey, I think its fair to point out that Orcutt’s work on these two LPs has a deliberately narrow range and focus. Bailey recorded music for 30-odd years. To me, it seems like a relatively useless comparison. On the status of this music as blues or not, its tempting to say, ‘Who cares?’ Orcutt’s playing picks out some of the multiple voicings and micro-structures of blues music, but on the other hand it is way more aggressive than anything I can think of as a comparison from safely within the genre, and it has none of the narrative content of the blues.

What keeps bringing me back to these recordings is that, while Orcutt is undoubtedly a very skilful guitar player, neither technique nor composition are permitted to mediate against expression in these pieces. The feel of the piece is all, and its what carries the player, and the listener, through.  In that respect, these records are essential listening for anyone who plays a guitar: invigorating, exciting and sometimes frustrating – but above all liberating music of the highest quality.

– Michael L. Clamp