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Guitarists in the Age of Isolation

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The Joel Newton Situation
New Now
Self Produced
2022

Since the first year of Covid had left everyone suddenly making music alone, of course it was inevitable that the trend of isolation albums would eventually give way to the out-of-isolation album as the world moved into partial circulation. For the Joel Newton Situation, that turns out to be more of a halfway step than a full revival. After Out Of and Into (Self Produced, 2020) was made almost entirely a one-man pastiche with only a couple parts remotely added, New Now is more of a collage, half solo and half with more help from some no-longer-absent friends.

Newton's heavily rhythmic acoustic guitar work is still at the center of things, and rightly so; his bouncy strumming and tapping could delightfully carry things along without any help. It wouldn't feel like a New Now without at least a little teamwork, though, and so dubbing some bass and percussion (with the odd wordless vocal on the side) is just the start. Other confederates provide a share of spirited drums to blend with the leader's catchy-chugging acoustic work. Electronic programs and sonically molded French horn add more aural textures that augment the analog feeling without overtaking things. The compositions at hand jump over the map in much the same way as the sounds and textures; the Situation handles bouncy rockabilly and proggy twisting patterns with equal flair. While this run is an unfortunately short one, it's got enough variety and flavor to (hopefully) hint at longer trips whenever and however life allows for more.

Gonzalo Esteybar
Hold
Self Produced
2022

Gonzalo Esteybar was naturally semi-prepared for working alone already, being less of a capital-G Guitarist and more a producer/engineer whose primary tool happens to be the guitar. His recordings are about creating an overall experience, usually using a few simple tools to pretty wide-ranging ends. There's a lot of Mike Oldfield to be heard in this collage that was gradually home-grown through 2020 and '21. In addition to emulating Oldfield's squealy guitar fuzz and mostly-one-man recording method, he pays direct homage with a cover reminiscent of Ommadawn (Virgin, 1975) and an opening twisty piano line that's a close sibling to the iconic Tubular Bells (Virgin, 1973).

That moment aside, Esteybar mostly avoids sounding imitative and goes straight for evocative. His pieces build a wide-ranging series of moods from there, wandering from near-ambient drifting piano to driving-yet-airy grooves or sweeping panoramic guitarscapes. With a familiar recipe of analogue tones and lightly electronic programs alongside powerful organic drums, Hold spins an evocative baker's dozen of mini-film scores just waiting for the listener's mind to provide the right scenes to match.

Matthew Stevens
Pittsburgh
Whirlwind Recordings
2021

As if being shut away at home wasn't enough, Matthew Stevens happened to break an elbow and found himself being extremely choosy about how he could move his arm muscles at all. The silver lining was that he'd already been developing a series of musical sketches whose direction was still up in the air. Playing became a part of his physical therapy, and so he let his own limitations guide how the pieces would continue developing. If the resulting pieces aren't the same things he would have written at full strength, the limitations ended up guiding them into distinct and unexpected shapes too.

Pittsburgh's tracks lean towards semi-abstract pictures and snapshots; there's groove and melody throughout this half hour, but always an organic drift that may or may not fall into an overall structure as a piece forms (even when "Can Am" makes a partita-style shape with one single-note line, in flux without quite repeating). Stevens takes some cues from the late Michael Hedges as well, showing an innately rhythmic playing style where there's a percussive factor just in the picking of strings. With such care and detail in everything his hands are doing, it was the perfect reason to try the all-solo recording he'd always thought about doing someday. This is a quirky beauty that wouldn't have happened in any other circumstances, weaving its elements into a form that sounds like nothing else.

Benji Kaplan
Something Here Inside
WiseCat Records
2022

Benji Kaplan starts by looking outside here—the short and sweet program is one of old-time standards— and yet at the same time, it's all shaped by what's within. His extensive knowledge and love of Brazilian music permeate all these chestnuts, from the nylon-string fingerpicking to the slow rubato renderings that let his emotional shades breathe. His style is a perpetually loose-flowing one where the notes tumble endlessly like waterfalls and recognizable melody lines blur almost beyond recognition. The actual works of Kern, Rodgers/Hart/Hammerstein, Gershwin and Porter provide the roughest of sketches here; as Kaplan stretches the chord forms into a perpetual zigzag of strums, he ensures that the heart of each piece is always right there to be heard and felt, however different they become.

Tracks and Personnel

New Now

Tracks: Itchy Pants Rag; Zingzing's Journey; Westward Longing; New Now; Winter Song; Square Zero; Feeding Time; Putney.
Personnel: Joel Newton: acoustic and electric guitars, bass, percussion, voice; Bill Cochran: French horn (5), processed French horn (6); Maks Newton: voice (5); Ethan Cohen: drums (6); Charlie Ginsberg: trap programming (6); Toshi Someya: bass (7) and (8); Eric Halvorson: drums (7); Lars Aakesson: guitar (8); Chris Michael: drums (8).

Hold

Tracks: (Don't) Mind; A Hunch; Dawning; Won or Lost; The Garden; Broken; Value (part 1); Hold; Canon; Time to Decide; Midnight Hours; Redefine; Value (part 2).

Personnel: Gonzalo Esteybar: guitar, bass, piano, keyboards; Franco Barbieri: drums.

Pittsburgh

Tracks: Ambler; Purpose of a Machine; Buckets; Can Am; Foreign Ghosts; Northern Touch; Cocoon; Ending Is Beginning; Blue Blues; Broke; Miserere.

Personnel: Matthew Stevens: guitar.

Something Here Inside

Tracks: The Song Is You; With a Song in My Heart; If Ever I Would Leave You; Smoke Gets in Your Eyes; So in Love; Anything Goes; But Not for Me; Easy to Love.

Personnel: Benji Kaplan: guitar.

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