Robert Stillman: Station Wagon Interior Perspective

Station Wagon ride with John Fahey

Robert Stillman returns with the Archaic Future Players

For a guy who plays the saxophone the way people talk about, Robert Stillman is an awful good drummer. And keyboard player. He does a fair bit of impressive composition, too.

The last time the Portland native (now Oxford man) swung through town, in 2009, he was carrying a piano record, Master Box, his first release on his own Archaic Future Recordings. This time through [this originally ran in 2012], he’s teamed with Apohadion Records on Station Wagon Interior Perspective, a 20-minute four-suite work with a couple of bonus tracks tacked on.

Apohadion is Rustic Overtone (and more) trombonist David Noyes and renaissance man Pat Corrigan’s lovechild, and its DIY ethic couldn’t be a better fit for Stillman’s folk/jazz project, ode as it is to John Fahey, the influential fingerstyle guitarist who was well known for going his own way and doing his own thing from the ‘60s until his death in 2001.

He was the type of artist releasing his music on his own label back in the 1970s, when such a thing really wan’t done. Cutting a record back then was a bit more of a project. Starting out fairly clean-cut and precise, like the quickly repeating phrases he would pick out on steel-string acoustic guitar, Fahey got hairier and his music got thornier, delving into heavily reverbed electrified pieces in his late career.

Don’t go in expecting the kind of tribute album that Arborea worked out for Robbie Basho, though, with loving odes to his actual playing style.

This is more of a creative response to a life lived (and there actually isn’t a note of guitar here). It’s noisy and irreverent and unexpected just like the guy Wilco guitarist and Fahey friend Nels Cline remembers dropping trou and taking a leak in front of a folk festival crowd, but also remarkably precise and thought-provoking, just like Fahey’s inventive approaches to the guitar fretboard.

Only maybe “Part III: Stomp” could be said to actually sound like a Fahey tune. It has his pacing, a restless forward momentum of repeating phrases, Stillman on the drums to hit an isolated cymbal like Fahey pinging a harmonic. It’s hopeful, too, with the horn section (the Archaic Future Players) bringing in a bright sun in descending phrases.

It’s like the best backing to any 1970s super hero cartoon there ever was, with Spider Man and Firestar zipping off to fight a swarm of comet-irradiated bees.

Those horns feature Noyes on trombone, along with Kenny Warren on trumpet, Jeremy Udden on “C melody saxophone” (I put that in quotes to remind you to Google it and learn a bunch of stuff about saxophone inventor Adolph Sax), and Benjamin Stapp on tuba.

The latter instrument is a significant presence and has a lot to do with why Stillman’s arrangements sound so novel.

“Part III” isn’t much of a “stomp” when it comes down to it, at least not like you’d expect. And neither is “Part I: Waltz” much of a classical waltz, or “Part II: Blues” much like what comes out of the guitars of Buddy Guy and BB King.

The opener is downright cacophonous, with the tuba lending a serious gravity. Then it picks up some sway, with a Jane Austen/Anna Karenina vibe. Stillman also plays a Fender Rhodes throughout the album and the way he fills the last 20 seconds of this song with it is particularly enjoyable.

“Part II: Blues” is more of a slow creep to start, but then gives way to something seriously slinky. Later the trumpet keeps trying to angle in for some facetime, but isn’t given much room to stretch out.

Finally, there is the heartsick and naked “Part IV: Funeral March,” which features a perfectly tragic entrance by the tuba and trumpet, with the snare leading a march of the damned, reluctant to meet their fate, which, judging by the frenzied finish, is akin to hopping into a meat grinder.

This is demand-your-attention music, with enough going on to occupy you like a Faulkner novel. There are phrases that may unsettle you. There are times when you might feel you’re glimpsing a scene of Americana that rarely sees the light of day. Of course, that’s when the the surprises happen, those unpredictable moments that give you a thrill of discovery, even if they’re not immediately recognizable or comfortable.

Fahey notoriously spent the latter part of his life living out of his station wagon, an itinerant maestro used to playing in front of a handful of adoring fans. Let’s give Stillman a warmer hometown welcome when he swings through Portland.

Aleric Nez: Aleric Nez

Ramblin’ Man

Aleric Nez needs no accompaniment

In this age of increasingly affordable technology [this originally ran in fall 2010], anybody can have a band. That’s no secret. For any songwriter, the urge can be great to add in that string section, that trumpet piece, that bit of backing vocal that’s so easy to hear right at the edge of consciousness.

And so it is interesting when a guy like Vince Nez, who plays all kinds of instruments, chooses to record an album like his debut Aleric Nez (also the name he’s performing under) that uses virtually none of today’s recording techniques. Much of the nine songs over 33 minutes seems like nothing more than Nez singing and playing his resonator guitar in front of your standard Sure SM-58.

Nez manages to evince passion at its most base level, laying it all out on the line. The recording is as naked as the emotion — often there isn’t even a touch of reverb to warm the guitar and vocals. It hard not to sound horrible when you’re recorded in such a raw fashion, with only the room and the floor and the atmosphere to act as a buffer between you and the diaphragm that makes up the microphone, but Nez sounds anything but.

It shouldn’t be surprising that it was recorded at Dave Noyes and Pat Corrigan’s Apohadion, which is just as unadorned with pretension.

When Nez opens the disc with Neville Livingston’s “Dreamland,” it is almost impossibly pretty, the resonator’s sweet finger-picked melody like a too bright light, like bells that ring to break glass. His voice is wobbly, elegant in its not-quite-rightness. And the tape hiss makes it all seem 50 years old: “We’ll count the stars in the sky/ And surely will never die.”

Like a Nick Drake album, there is a timelessness to this, surely, replacing that Drake dreamlike quality with an abrasive smirk, Drake’s crystalline falsetto with something more like a cry of pain. “She said you can’t run from me,” he sings in “Witch,” “She said you cannot fight.”

Nez definitely shares an aesthetic with Micah Blue Smaldone, as well, though he doesn’t here get into any of the real fast-paced fingerpicking that Smaldone can bust out. Nor is his voice quite so imbued with wobble and lurch. Same kind of vibe, though, like he’s playing anywhere but in modern-day civilization.

Except that the crooning “Daydreamin’” stands up with anything Bon Iver’s doing, just without all the layers; and “My Yuselda,” done electric like a pedal steel, is not dissimilar to M. Ward’s “Roller Coaster,” just more stripped down — more stripped down than anyone really. Very few solo artists go quite this solo. It’s like Jack Johnson for kids who can’t surf and wear cut-off jeans and who burn pretty easily.

Nez also sounds at times just a little bit crazy, which adds to the album’s allure.

Probably the best track is the short catchy almost-rocker “Butter,” where Nez is like a circus ringleader: “Take the edge from your voice, my dear/ There’s no reason to use it here … save it for someone who actually threatens you.”

Just as he sings on the Hank Williams cover the closes the disc, Nez is a “Ramblin’ Man,” a loner, but you sure hope he takes a swing through your town.