Friday, November 23, 2018

CD Review: Wendy Einsenberg - Its Shape is in Your Touch; The Machinic Unconscious

Wendy Eisenberg
Its Shape Is In Your Touch

Wendy Eisenberg
The Machinic Unconscious

Wendy Eisenberg might be the most liberating guitarist since Derek Bailey. Few players coax such a vast array of sounds from those six strings, all of it coming in a torrent that has no regard for whether the lines connect easily or not. They come rapidly, leaving the listener to wonder what the hell just happened and to find out more by exploring it further. Which leads to more details coming to light. When considering the background inspirations for some of the music, even greater dimensions start to arise.

Based in Western Massachusetts, Eisenberg has played with an array of adventurous musicians and was part of the "brainy noisy punk" (NPR) band Birthing Hips. As a poet, her writing has been turned into large scale works and she has also written extensively about music and theory. These two albums present two different sides of her guitar playing: Its Shape is In Your Touch is a series of solo acoustic improvisations; The Machinic Unconscious presents her in an electric trio with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Ches Smith.

In the opening seconds of Its Shape Is In Your Touch, as a stark tritone hangs in the air, the clarity of Eisenberg's playing already presents itself. Even in a spare setting her crisp tone can be felt. Soon she is hitting harmonics, and bending notes and getting sustained rings where they normally wouldn't exist. Until the final seconds, she moves at a slow, thoughtful pace that isn't afraid of pregnant pauses.

This contemplative feeling continues through the album, which gets its name from a Richard Brautigan poem and an idea from novelist William Gaddis that "you can change a line without touching it." Eisenberg plays with an uninhibited quality that allows things to move at a relaxed pace, without ever gets lost in the exploration of the thought process. Sometimes a delicate line gets slashed by the introduction of a dissonant interval, but the mood is never disturbed. A track like "Early November" sounds at times like acoustic folk of someone like John Fahey, but that might say more about the music she has absorbed because her final creation comes across as something highly original. Even "All Saints" - a somewhat unsettling six-minute track of string scrapes and plinks where nearly all of her playing happens beneath the bridge  - fits right in since it serves as the final statement of the album.

In direct contrast to that album's opening sound, The Machinic Unconscious opens with the explosion of an effects pedal. It takes a moment to realize that it comes not from Eisenberg but from Trevor Dunn, who plays a lot of fuzz bass throughout the album. Eisenberg uses similar effects at various points but she never alters the clarity of her tone.

In some free music, the musicians move together in parallel lines, making it feel like they're playing as a unit even if they're not following bar lines or chord changes. At times on The Machinic Unconscious the trio feels like three separate elements pulling away from one another. "Frayed, Knotted and Unshorn" could be the preamble to a soundcheck where the fuzz bass noodles, guitar skronk and drum fills were played to test levels. "Foresworn" begins like a fading transmission, plagued by bad guitar cables.

But if all the attention is focused on Eisenberg while listening, the perspective changes. Suddenly, her melodic choices and what she plays on top of her bandmates reveal themselves. After two tracks of pure freedom, they give her a funky backbeat in "Parataxis," and she chews it up, locking into an ascending/descending riff towards the end. In "Kiln," the melodic quality of her work approximates the best raw moments of fusion while "Dangerous Red" sounds like a distant cousin to the guitars on Trout Mask Replica.

The inspiration behind the music adds some more perspective to it as well. Commissioned by John Zorn for the Tzadik label, the title comes from a critical theory by Gilles Deleuze that poses the idea that the unconscious can release an expansive, radical imagination process on the poetic landscape. The track that opens the album with a blast, "The Descent of Alette," takes its name from an Alice Notley poem which is marked by "formal disruptions," like the excessive use of quotes. Eisenberg presumably is transferring this process to the music.

Two release shows coming up for both albums for those in a couple lucky cities. On November 30, a performance at the State House in New Haven, CT celebrates the release of Its Shape Is In Your Touch. The show for The Machinic Unconscious takes place on December 11 at Nublu in New York City. If only I could travel to both of them, I'd get to see this music unfold in front of me, getting an even deeper grasp of this guitarist's work.

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