Release Date: Jun 3, 2016
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Folk
American guitarist William Tyler’s excellent fourth album begins with an anxiety attack and ends with an interpolation of Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing so subtle, I’m still not sure it’s there. The instrumental album strung between those two poles is of such eloquence it renders them superfluous. Context almost gets in the way. Modern Country is a beatific and expansive ambient record daubed in acoustic and electric guitars, analogue oscillations, some really scary bells and no words; its meaning can be fluid.
Following up the classic country-soul of Nixon was never going to be easy for Kurt Wagner’s Lambchop. That they pulled it off with Is A Woman’s pastoral embrace was in no small part thanks to Kurt Wagner’s recruitment of the then-little known Nashville guitarist William Tyler. Tyler has since gone on to make a name for himself first as an unadorned finger-picking virtouso on Behold The Spirit (2010), before embracing electric textures with the droney meditations of 2013’s Impossible Truth.
Guitarist and composer William Tyler has been thinking about America for a long time in the aftermath of 2013's loose, rambling, and beautiful The Impossible Truth, which referenced the country's musical traditions and landscapes. Afterwards, he spent almost two years touring solo, driving back and forth across the country. In a short promo trailer for Modern Country he stated that, "The cultural geography of this vanishing America is what I sense as a slow fade on these long road trips….It still lives, even as the highways and the high rises push it to the fringes of the countryside and the static of the airwaves." This album is his "love letter to what we're losing in America.
William Tyler manages to say a lot without ever uttering a word. Despite featuring little besides gentle strums and fingerpickings, the Nashville guitarist’s ruminative folk and country pieces speak eloquently to what the critic Greil Marcus called the “old weird America”, evoking a forgotten place of eerie backroads and abandoned gas stations. Modern Country, Tyler’s third album, is described as a “love letter” to this vanishing world.
William Tyler is not a traditional storyteller. Having played guitar alongside some of Nashville’s most distinctive songwriters (Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner and Silver Jews’ David Berman), he has clearly learned a good deal from them about establishing his voice, structuring narratives, and building tension. But Tyler—whose solo albums are purely instrumental—works in a field all his own, composing increasingly intricate and immersive narratives with just his playing.
Modern Country begins with a track titled “Highway Anxiety” that sweeps by like a momentary blink of awareness stretched out to the lengths of infinity, both immediately recognizable and slowly fading into obscurity. It’s the longest (and simplest) song on William Tyler’s latest sonnet to the American countryside, its entirety dedicated to a single loping riff that continually bears into itself, gaining strength in its restatements and evolution until eventually its sense of time becomes nebulous, its drift as much an environment as the landscape that came before it. Tyler’s music has always borne a deep love for the idea of place — specifically the great, mythological West — but Modern Country is his first to understand that relationship through the lens of time, to wrestle with the difficulties of how change can affect that love we carry for certain memories and geographies that haunt our day-to-day lives.
's Impossible Truth found William Tyler exploring the technicolour world of instrumental composition through droning, introspective meditation. On Modern Country, Tyler turns his attention outwards, surveying what remains of America's unique culture in these modern, tumultuous times.Despite its massive scope, Modern Country is a more focused, more inclusive effort than Impossible Truth was, yet retains the boundless and quintessentially American sound of Tyler's compositions. Songs like album opener "Highway Anxiety" recall the vast American expanse by starting small and building to soaring peaks, while "Kingdom of Jones" is a pleasant, laid-back ode to Tyler's American Primitive forefathers.
The weight of the past bears heavy on William Tyler. During a recent performance in the early Gothic Hall at New York City’s Cloisters Museum — a castle-like space housing all manner of medieval art in the upper reaches of the west side of Manhattan — he pretty much said so. Surrounded by various depictions of the Virgin Mary, 13th-century stained glass, and limestone windows, Tyler sat on a makeshift stage with an acoustic guitar and explained the strange history of “Kingdom of Jones,” one of the doleful instrumentals from his third LP, Modern Country.
Though William Tyler's fingerpicking has always suggested open vistas, ragged coasts, and endless plains, the streamlined Modern Country summons the undying hum and manmade ingenuity of freeways and canals. Relatively polished and succinct, the album finds Tyler trimming song lengths after having stepped into a professional studio with a backing band made up of vets Phil Cook, Glenn Kotche, and Darin Gray (of Hiss Golden Messenger, Wilco, and Tweedy, respectively). .
The Upshot: It shows what a great musician can do when he decides his skill is the least important part of the package. Back in the late ‘80s, MCA Nashville initiated the short-lived MCA Master Series, a collection of instrumental albums recorded by various Nashville session cats that showed off sides to their playing and writing beyond country and bluegrass. Much of it ended up being new age twaddle, but there are several gems from artists like Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer, who pushed themselves beyond what most people expected of them.
Summer playlists usually teem with high-energy party music, but nights spent camping under the stars at Joshua Tree or amid the Big Sur redwoods call for sounds more contemplative, organic, earthen. This month has seen the arrival of a few remarkable guitar-based instrumental albums that fit the bill and offer proof that the ideas and experiments of John Fahey, Sandy Bull, Bert Jansch, Jack Rose and others still resonate. Marisa Anderson, “Into the Light” (Chaos Kitchen).
William Tyler attributes the origins of his new album both to the incongruous musical diet of ’70s country and krautrock he ingested while driving on tour, and to what he drove past: “forgotten small towns, bleak countryside, old motels, abandoned diners. ” The album, he says, is “a love letter to what we’re losing in America, to what we’ve already lost. ” Those concerns show up in the titles of songs and in their particular inspirations; knowing this provides context, but isn’t necessary to appreciate Tyler’s guitar playing and the layered, textured beauty of his compositions.