Postponing the Worm, by John Danley
Postponing the Worm.|
A Priori Records, 1998.
John Danley's debut album places him at the front of the emerging group of acoustic guitarist-songwriters that are currently contributing to the nationally booming coffee house/club folk scene that shows every sign of only becoming bigger and more "mainstream" with time. Like many of these performers, Danley draws his inspiration from a variety of musical sources including classical guitar, flamenco, acoustic guitar guru Leo Kottke's twelve-string rollicking neo-bluegrass work and the more ambient Windam Hill sound of the late Michael Hedges—in fact, Danley titles two songs on the present album ("Kottkesque" and "Clipping Hedges") after these artists.
But the primary thing that sets Danley aside from others in his (loosely-defined) genre is his originality; none of the CD's twelve songs are covers, unlike the work of so many of his colleagues who cover each other's work so much it begins to sound almost incestuous in its sameness, differing only in excellence of technique and creativity of presentation, both of which Danley has in large measure, right down to the hilarious liner notes stylistic of those on 60s instrumental LPs. While lesser artists occupy themselves with bad songs about neo-paganism or the fate of the Native Americans with the occasional boring instrumental thrown in, Danley emerges as both vital and honest, with none of the tired political palaver included.
While not as thematically cohesive as a Kottke album, Danley keeps you interested and guessing and never bored: he's a mercurial chameleon of the guitar, and part of the fun (and this album is fun) is wondering just what the hell he'll do next. The pieces are often rather raw, recorded in a single take, but this contributes to the album's appeal and sense of immediacy.
The eclectic approach works to great effect, but like all eclectic approaches, some of the songs are more enjoyable than others: Danley is at his best in the driving numbers with a sense of humor like "Concourse B" and "China James" (my favorite of the quicker-tempo songs), and much more convincing in the classical style in the lyrical and affecting "Mt. Etna" than in "Conchita," which nonetheless demonstrates a mastery of the Spanish-classical technique and the ability to adapt it to original music. "Kottkesque" is a tremendously enjoyable tribute, and although Danley admits in the liner notes it was recorded a bit hastily, the accidental thumps of his wristwatch on the guitar have a certain syncopation to them that makes them seem both intentional and funny—just like something Kottke would do.
There are a few pieces on the album that exude a more (for lack of a better word) ambient feel that I would perhaps enjoy more were I myself an accomplished guitarist, which I'm not—but one doesn't even have to like acoustic guitar music to appreciate "La Belle Dame," the album's most beautiful, masterful, smoothest track which is certain to become something of a classic.
The album's sole vocal track, "Alone Again," is easy to write off and misunderstand, as it's placed as the penultimate song, between the two most emotionally affecting pieces on the album; but it manages to be both hilarious and profoundly touching and poignant, the artist's last word on a devastating relationship. To write a song on such a topic without any sentimentality whatever is a major achievement, and one hopes Danley will include more sung numbers on his next CD, and stick with the originals—on this album he shows both technical proficiency, emotional depth, and an original talent as a songwriter that suggests that we'll be hearing much, much more about him in the not-so-distant future.