A Decade Of Bill Orcutt On The Box
by Byron Coley, June 2017

Sitting here playing the digital download of this new LP by Bill Orcutt, I decide to check his Palilalia website to see what's up. Typically, I discover I have missed a couple of 7” records (both archival releases by Bill's Miami based band of yore, Harry Pussy), and also a duo cassette done with Korean-born cellist, Okkyung Lee. It has been like this for years.

Orcutt seemed to vanish when he moved to San Francisco in the late '90s. A few people I knew were in touch with him, but after that Studio We/Benefit for Radio Alice trio CD on Ned Hayden's Audible Hiss label, back in '96 (with a new drummer and bassist, and some guest vocals by Adris), not much was forthcoming. A couple of solo electronics singles were “released” on the Fake Estates label in 2007 (or so), but they were done in quantities of less than a hundred, without sleeves, and the first one never even made it to Fusetron's mail order list (which had been the only place you could get the second one). These nameless, all-but-label-less confections were the template Orcutt would use for his really kinda shocking return to the scene in 2009.

The High Waisted 45 (with split faced Hendrix/Obama cover art) was a sparkling, scrambled cluster fuck of acoustic guitar playing. It didn't really follow any logic with which I was familiar — circular clumping and throat runs, notwithstanding — but it sounded amazing. It took a while to determine if this was a one-off or something else, and then Bill dropped a full album of similarly-canted work, A New Way To Pay Old Debts, which had fantastic cover art based on the '73 Santana/McLaughlin LP, Love Devotion Surrender. Took a little while to figure that out, but the sound of Orcutt's 4-string Kay acoustic was unmistakable. And after that, his movements became more agile and harder to track.

“It didn't really follow any logic with which I was familiar — circular clumping and throat runs, notwithstanding — but it sounded amazing.”

Bill began playing live shows again. He recorded the one-sided 12”, Way Down South, with its split-image cover of Muddy Waters, while he was touring New Zealand. This was the first instance of him officially referencing the blues. And it made sense. While it was possible to think of his instrumental approach as being an outgrowth of Derek Bailey's work, it was even more sensical when you folded in country blues as an element. Bill's hound-dog vocals and the physical intensity of his playing were definitely touched by the blues. Which was interesting, because there are many “free” players for whom this is not even close to true.

Most of the releases he did on his own Palilalia imprint were designed to be sold on tour, so they started to pop up with evil frequency when he began hitting the road regularly. In May 2011, he released two singles. All Tongues (Eric Clapton cover) had two bluesy moaners and Tic Fit (Jagger meets Berry cover) had one of those and another that seemed like it represented a different stylistic advance in controlled aggression, its hues deeper and darker than its flip.

Crazily, or so it seemed at the time, these singles were followed by Mego reissuing A New Way To Pay Old Debts, (and doing a CD that included some bonus tracks as well as that first single). It was kinda mind-boggling that the Viennese leisure set were clamoring for this stuff, but what the hey. Mego followed this up almost immediately by releasing another LP, How The Thing Sings. This seems to have been Bill's first solo record done in a “real studio,” as opposed to in his SF apartment or live somewhere. And I'm not sure if that has anything to do with it, but while his approach continues evolving along the same vertical axis, the music here has more space built into it, which creates a somewhat more open feeling. It's something his compressed, almost arthritically clenched approach to the strings does not always offer.

On Halloween 2011, Bill issued his next single, A King or Something (Michael Jackson cover), on which his sound seemed to become even firmer. His guitar maintaining ever stronger chord positions as he let his soul flow from his mouth. That sense was heightened on his next single, Star Spangled Banner (BO cover), released July 2012, which consisted of two amazing power-rambles through the tune. Interestingly, this record was the first place you began to hear tendrils of Loren Connors' harmonics in Bill's sound. Maybe it had something to do with the parallel ways the two guitarists have of thinking about Hendrix. Not sure. But between these two releases was the hideous and satisfying cassette, Why Does Everybody Love Free Music But Nobody Loves Free People? It was hideous because it meant Orcutt had now discovered another format of tour merch to hide from us. It was satisfying because it was an incredibly fucked up live tape with horrible sonics, bellicose audience interaction, long stretches of silence, and even a guest spot by the cops. In short, almost everything you could want from a live document.

In August and September of 2012, Orcutt started playing electric guitar again, and did a tour with drummer Chris Corsano. The first evidence of this was the Live At Partners 7”, which included a third player, guitarist Bill Nace. The music on this is a mix of chest-punching percussion, staggered electric spasms from Orcutt and longer tone-form-yawps from Nace. Lo-fi and delicious, it was originally supposed to be a three way split between the artists' respective labels, but there were arguments about the cover art, so it ended up being just a Hot Cars/Open Mouth co-release. The same tour was documented on the Orcutt/Corsano duo LP, The Raw & the Cooked (Col. Sanders cover). Since I know how much Chris revered the music of Harry Pussy, it's not surprising that much of this album has a heft similar to HP's latter period work (sans Adris's singular vocal inventions, natch). But it was also a great demonstration that Bill had not allowed his electric chops to atrophy over the years of playing acoustic.

“It was satisfying because it was an incredibly fucked up live tape with horrible sonics, bellicose audience interaction, long stretches of silence, and even a guest spot by the cops. In short, almost everything you could want from a live document.”

In the fall of 2013, Orcutt made his largest solo form-move to date. In September, he issued a 13 single box-set called Twenty Five Songs, which was followed immediately by the Mego LP, A History Of Every One (or maybe vice versa, I can't exactly recall). This project seems to have had its roots in the Star Spangled single, which is reprised in the box. On these releases, Orcutt applies his crabbed acoustic guitar style to a weirdo's version of the Great American Songbook (I don't think they're all American tunes, but you get the idea). Traditional songs, show tunes, ballads, blues, TV themes, all of them get mangled in a very loving way. And although I go mental when I try to A/B this shit, it appears to me that most of the versions of the songs on the singles and the LP are different. In other words, you need them both to get the real picture. And it's a strange, moss-hung panorama. Adding excellent insult to wonderful injury, a later solo cassette, Plays Songs, documents some of the first attempts at this sprawling attempt to gobble the sun. It was recorded for a pirate radio station back in 2012. Which is when the idea's germ was planted.

The next tour single, I Remember Pedro Bell (creepy Dylan cover), came out in October 2013, with one electric side and one acoustic. I thought this one had more of a Jandekian vibe in spots, but that's just me. After this, in early 2014, was when the Gerty Loves Pussy tape finally came out. Confusingly, it had been announced a year earlier, when Bill first had the idea of doing some solo electric work based on the rhythms of Gertrude Stein's writing. But the concept languished and the recording was not done until January 2014, when he was invited to participate in a marathon reading of Stein's novel, The Making of Americans (1925). Orcutt's electric playing is a brilliant evocation of Stein's stuttering masterpiece (an LP reissue of the set was done in 2015), so the basic idea (which seemed far-fetched in theory) actually makes a lot of sense. The next single was Why Four Strings (train ticket cover) which had been recorded at a festival in the north of England. Like the natives of that region, it is tight, choppy, buzzy and hooty. Along with this, Bill released two tour tapes — My Friends When I'm Not There and Two Weeks in Another Town. Two Weeks was recorded live in Scotland and Norway, and has an aggressively bluesy brunt, with a quiet violence lurking in the shadows. My Friends is its opposite — a lovely contemplative performance, full of hope and sadness. It was recorded on Christmas Day in the stairwell of an elementary school in Miami. And it sounds just like that. This session also resulted in Bill's next album, Solo Acoustic Guitar Volume Ten, part of Steve Lowenthal's VDSQ LP series. Which I guess makes My Friends a tape of out-takes. Regardless, the music on the album showcases a lot of reflective qualities that aren't often present in Bill's work, yet which are always there somewhere informing it. It's not all relaxed, but the whole has a deeper weirdness for its surface placidity. The entire VDSQ series is good, but this one's a true stand-out.

Following this, Bill did more stuff for other labels. First up was Dennis Tyfus's Ultra Eczema, for whom he did the Square Cunts single. On this one it almost sounds like a machine is playing Orcutt's acoustic. Must have been a real goose of show that stinky night in Antwerp. Then there's the one-sided Turkey in the Straw single for the much-loved-and-missed Lucky Peach. This almost sounds like an out-take from A History Of Every One. It was one of the three food-related singles Lucky Peach managed to issue (the others are by Magik Markers and Michael Hurley), all of them quite lovely. After that, there was Daddy's Got a Spice Rack, which was a cassette on Chocolate Monk, which I've never heard. This is because although Dylan Nyoukis claimed he had a copy packed for me, he never actually got around to sending it. What it sounds like, I dare not guess. The last of 2014's loose salutes was Road Stories (Kali), a live LP in Unrock's Saraswati Series, split between Orcutt and Sir Richard Bishop. Both sides are extremely gear, with Orcutt's work being brambly as hell. Thick 4-string tangles that tense and relax as spirits move them.

“Like second hand smoke, Orcutt's marketing techniques can be dangerous when standing in a room full of doofuses. ”

Smooshed in somewhere amidst that horde was Palilalia's Live At Various cassette, recorded on Orcutt and Corsano's 2013 tour at shows in Cleveland, Montreal and Rochester. The fidelity is raw, and Orcutt's electric guitar here is particularly blistering. The decision to pack this in cover art featuring “Corky” Love and Billy Pumpkin led to much in-store confusion when we had it displayed near the cash register. Since we are based in a college town, many were the pert-nipped assholes who asked what material the two cover stars were performing on the tape, despite a large printed explanation that they were not involved in the project for even a trice. Like second hand smoke, Orcutt's marketing techniques can be dangerous when standing in a room full of doofuses. And Bill cleared this up, not one whit in 2016, when he reissued the tape, paired with its companion piece, Various Live, on a double LP. That cover just shows the fronts of the cassettes. So again, big signs were in order. The latter cassette, by the by, was recorded on the pair's 2014 tour, in Northampton, Mexico City and Brooklyn. It's as splendidly fucked as the earlier tape, although the music gives the impression of being more structured. But as with much of Orcutt's work, it's difficult to determine whether he's conforming with the listener's inner sonic organization system, or is somehow rejiggering the listener's system to align with what he's doing. The Various Live tape was issued in February 2015, along with the aforementioned Plays Songs solo cassette.

A month earlier, Bill had released the Tupac Tattoo double-single. This was an overdubbed solo set of Orcutt playing both guitar and drums. His drumming style is much more rock-basic than Corsano's, but there's a strange solidity to the hunching, which gives it a shimmer not unlike an early '70s Crazy Horse rehearsal at which only Neil and Ralph Molina managed to appear. A bodacious move. In March 2015, a surprised audience woke to discover Bill had recorded All That's Real, a single in collaboration with Hayley Fohr from Circuit des Yeux. It was a full throated rockoid sort of session, not fully congruent with either of musicians' specific history, but it worked in a cool way nonetheless. This pairing also resulted in a cassette, Live in New York, which is a very bonny mix of Hayley's more extended vocal techniques and some of Bill's most note-specific playing yet recorded. And it all went so well they even let Keith (“Po' Boy”) Connolly guest on the last tune. How gracious.

In May 2015, Bill released the Guitar and Its Double single. (Washing Machine parody cover). Unlike the Artaud book (from which it sorta borrows its name), the specificity of language here is minimized. Indeed, Orcutt's post-tongue babble register is set as high as it's ever been, resulting in a truly insane room-clearer. As different as a duck was the material issued later in May as part of Three Lobed Records' Parallelograms project. These consisted of five split LPs done as a conceptual set, although you could buy them separately. Bill's side is a live electric trio set with Corsano and Alan Bishop (playing as BOC), recorded at the 2012 Hopscotch Fest down in North Carolina. It has a crazed angularity, comparable (perhaps) to a methed-up version of Rangada. Super nice, especially when they tear into a cover of Cream's “Politician.” Their side was paired with material by Thurston Moore and John Moloney's duo, Caught On Tape, recorded at the same fest. And that's pretty snappy, too.

“This solo electric guitar recital, revisiting some of the material from his 2013 sessions, but played with new clarity and reach, is probably his most beautiful record yet.”

The following month, Palilalia released Colonial Donuts another duo album with a drummer. This time Bill's partner was West Coast utility fielder, Jacob Felix Heule, who's done everything from experimental music to metal and beyond. Heule's playing displays a more compressed profile than Corsano has ever managed, so a lot of the outward sprong comes in short bursts from Bill's guitar. And it sounds pretty great. That panorama of Bob Marley tats on the cover gives me the willies, but I doubt anyone cares. People were surely more excited to learn that Bill re-ignited the long-dormant Fake Estates label to issue some new electronic music. Late 2015 saw the release of the Recent Chrome Exploits cassette, which I thought had been recorded on his broken iPhone when I first heard about it, although it turned out to be to a gushing slunk-load of sequencer whackery done with a computer. The music was improvised in real time and is a small nightmare of compressed desires. The year's final release was the Lonely People cassette, which many feared was a Beatles tribute. Thankfully it was a live tape, recorded at various spots along his recent Fall tour, focusing on solo acoustic dates.

The first release of 2016 was the Live at Cafe OTO LP, documenting the first duo performance by Bill and cellist, Okkyung Lee. The meeting had been at London club in November 2015, and was issued on their own in-house label, Otoroku. The blend of strings is pretty intoxicating — Bill mixes plinks with extended note quivers, and Okkyung weaves ribbons of frenzied tone-wobble through his hanging notes. As the set progresses, the mood and mode alter, stretching out in places, achieving a Euro-free density in others. Apart from somebody's persistent coughing, the sound is very hi-falutin' and this would have to be judged a tip-top event for all involved. This album was immediately appended by Palilalia's Live single, recorded by Bill and Okkung at three different shows. On this one Bill favors longer tones and Ms. Lee's cello does more of the hopping. Very cool. There is also a brand new duo cassette, OKK/OTT, but I haven't heard it yet.

Other releases from 2016 start with Who Does What?, a single recorded in Rio at the end of 2014, on which Bill plays along with the Brazilian trio, Chinese Cookie Poets. Their music has a somewhat loopy post-Beefheart galumph to it, and the combination of elements is very hep. This was followed by the first LP on the Fake Estates label, Cracked Music. Again, this was made with a program that transforms your computer into something very much like a fucked up analog synth. The material is a head-scratching smear of sequence-like riffs, general clomping and confusing on a very fine level. A new Fake Estates LP, An Account of the Crimes of Peter Thiel and His Subsequent Arrest, Trial and Execution, is due momentarily.

Which more or less brings us up to his new eponymous LP, Bill Orcutt. This solo electric guitar recital, revisiting some of the material from his 2013 sessions, but played with new clarity and reach, is probably his most beautiful record yet. But hey, they really all deserve a listen. So get to work, you fucking slacker.

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