Sir Richard Bishop
Drag City Records
I’ve always loved Sir Richard Bishop’s records – the obvious touchstone, and perhaps he’s over-mentioned really is John Fahey, still, his sound and feel and approach has been hugely influential and not just on Bishop. A generation of folk-motivated sonic explorers were turned onto the guitar and taught to tune it differently because someone showed them a clip of Fahey or bought them a record or they found out about him themselves. And Bishop has been something of a torch-carrier. There’s plenty of other great acoustic players he might have taken plenty from though and one that’s not mentioned as often – probably because he’s not thought of as being anywhere near as ‘cool’ – is Leo Kottke. And perhaps I notice his feel and sound even more here on Sir Richard’s first album in five years.
But the idiosyncratic instrumentalist doesn’t even have the guitar on his mind – or even at all around his neck – for about half of this album. And that’s going to bug some people. They’ll wonder what the point is. Particularly if their introduction was previous outing, Tangier Sessions.
But there’s enough to keep you interested I should hope – and maybe it’s time for Bishop, restless enough in his playing and approach, to move more towards a David Grubbs-styled Gastr del Sol-esque existence of making the guitar just a part of the sounds that are found and explored throughout the recording process.
That said, the album opens with a handful of great guitar moments.
The slight, sci-fi brittle whimsey of the intro piece Call To Order barely counts, at just 90 seconds, but first song-proper, Celerity, is a fast-strum acoustic piece that gathers up the Fahey-isms and the Kottke feels and wraps them in Bishop’s hypnotic sway.
Mit’s Linctus Codeine Co. is another slight piece, this time denting two minutes and using electric guitar in a curious surf-rock deviation. It’s like a middle ground between Bill Frisell and Hank Marvin was sought. Then flattened.
Renaissance Nod, at six minutes, is a slow, lengthy piece of solitary guitar. The space and silence that echoes around it as important as any of the notes. But just as I think of Ralph Towner’s best work I’m struck that this is similar, too, to the final pieces on Buckethead’s Colma album. This is the width Bishop works across.
So the front half of the album is a joy. It moves along nicely and is – arguably – what you might expect from a six-string quiet-virtuoso like Bishop.
Then he puts the guitar down for the 9-minute Graveyard Wanderers and freaks the fuck out on sound-design, making a weird, apocalyptic horror-score crawl through an unsettling musical darkness. To say it won’t be for everyone is putting it mildly. Putting it mildly is something Bishop almost never does. This is like Tim Hecker in overdrive. I kinda like it and am utterly freaked out by it at the same time.
And from there we go all over – to a Celtic piping ceremony with a twist (Dust Devils) and back to the familiar and earthy, oaky acoustic for Enville – which is sublime. Deft-fingered and feels like where John Martyn might have ended up had sobriety been an option.
The guitar is back in the picture for the final few songs – with one or two moments of pause and intrigue.
There’s lots here and I love most of it. It’s probably Bishop’s least consistent record, eh. But the highlights are high. The weirdness is big. And the evolution of the man’s music is still very compelling to me.
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