Guitarist Bill Frisell's latest foray outside jazz into folk-country-Americana is a soundtrack of sorts to an exhibit of photographs by Michael Disfarmer, an eccentric and curmudgeonly portrait artist who recorded stark, stunning black and white images of his fellow townsfolk in rural Arkansas in the 1940s and '50s.
Most of the 26 tracks here are sparse, evocative sketches or snapshots, with Frisell and his string quartet of longtime cohortsGreg Liesz on steel guitar and mandolin, Jenny Scheinman
on violin and Viktor Krauss on bassexploring and reworking simple countrified melodies. But, as is always the case with Frisell, this isn't your grandma's country music. He uses looping, music boxes and even has Scheinman play a Philip Glass-like backdrop on the haunting "Focus."
Some of the more fully developed tunes beg for the addition of lyrics and a sympathetic vocalist (maybe Allison Krauss on the bittersweet "Little Girl" or Neil Young on the brooding "I Am Not a Farmer"). A handful of well-chosen covers round out the album and help establish the mood of mid-20th century, middle-American melancholy, including a reimagining of Elvis Presley's famous version of "That's All Right Mama" (with Frisell faithfully reproducing Scotty Moore's classic rockabilly solos) and a take on Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues" that showcases Liesz' superb steel guitar chops.
This is a quiet, at times almost pastoral, album and while it's expertly played by all the artists, there are fewer instrumental fireworks than on Frisell's jazz outings or some of his earlier explorations of country music, like the much-acclaimed Nashville. But lurking just below the beauty on the surface, as in many of Disfarmer's photographs, is a hint of despair and danger, which gives the work its power.
Personnel: Bill Frisell: electric and acoustic guitars, loops, music boxes; Greg Liesz: steel guitars, mandolin; Jenny Scheinman: violin; Viktor Krauss: bass.