I love the guitar.
I can’t play a note, of course. I make up for this by being a world-class champion air guitarist. I flail, I dance about, but most of all, I contort my face the way I’ve seen guitarists do when they hit a particularly resonant note. Seriously, you’d think I was a pro, if not for the complete absence of a guitar. In my head, I’m Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and Frank Zappa all rolled into one. In reality, as several of my helpful friends have noted while laughing their helpful asses off, I look like I’m going into a grand mal seizure.
But I can’t help it. I love the sound of the guitar. It’s one of the few instruments that can call forth an emotional reaction from me all by itself. (Piano is another, and I can play that one.) A good guitarist can make you alternately pissed off and weepy, at his or her command. A good guitarist can make you sing, cry or shiver with chills, which is why it’s such a shame that the radio is so full of inexperienced six-string manglers.
Every Joe Satriani album is like a private guitar class, a textbook full of examples of the myriad textures and emotions available to the guitarist with the skill to bring them out. While so many so-called guitar heroes seem stuck on “ferocious roar,” Satriani manages to be loud, even searing, and still maintain his innate melodicism. There are very few Joe Satriani songs you can’t sing along with, even though he rarely includes vocals.
Strange Beautiful Music, Joe’s eighth studio album, includes 14 hummable numbers without words, and just when you thought he might have run out of ideas, what with the sadly boring Live in San Francisco last year emphasizing all of his weaknesses, he surprises with a fully realized, multi-layered work. It’s surprising because SBM is a return to the “classic” Satriani sound of Surfing With the Alien and Crystal Planet, but it adds new dimensions and some fascinating melodic choices to create something familiar yet fresh.
One thing Satch needs to work on is his song titles. They used to be cool and evocative, telling little stories (“Lords of Karma,” “Driving at Night,” “Flying in a Blue Dream”). Now, if he writes, for example, a song with a vaguely oriental melody, he’s apt to call the song “Oriental Melody.” I’m not making this up – “Oriental Melody” is the real name of the leadoff track on SBM. Elsewhere he whips out a seven-string guitar for a tune called, that’s right, “Seven String.” Not too imaginative.
But that’s forgivable, as the songs themselves are pretty inventive. “Oriental Melody” bops and grooves its way through numerous textures, as does “Belly Dancer,” which includes a charmed snake of a lead line. “Mind Storm” is pretty amazing, collapsing an epic journey into 4:10, and “What Breaks a Heart” bleeds with emotion.
There is one speed bump – a short cover of old surf tune “Sleepwalk,” the only remnant, apparently, of an historic meeting of the guitar minds between Satch and Robert Fripp of King Crimson. Truthfully, you can barely hear Fripp in the background, spreading his Frippertronics jazz all over the track while Satch plays a depressingly faithful rendition. These two could have traded licks for half an hour, and I wouldn’t have minded. Plus, they’re both unconventional composers, and I’d have loved to hear what they could have come up with together. To confine their collaboration to two minutes of someone else’s song is a crime.
And sure, it drags by the end, but all of Satch’s albums do, and he redeems himself with a closing trilogy that goes somewhere and, more remarkably, comes back by its conclusion. The gentle “You Saved My Life” closes out Strange Beautiful Music, and it sounds as though his guitar, at least, believes the sentiment. This is Satriani’s most successful project since The Extremist in 1992, incorporating the lessons learned on his blues and techno excursions back into an instrumental rock setting. As usual, bassist Matt Bissonette and drummer Jeff Campitelli are along for the ride, playing marvelously, but this is Satriani’s show, and it’s definitely one worth attending if you like the guitar.
Cool as he is, Satriani is not at the top of my list of favorite guitar players, but our next contestant is right up there. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: There are only two guitar players I could listen to for days on end and not be bored. One of them is Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits fame, and the other is Michael Roe.
Roe’s playing has a fluidity and grace that only comes from two sources: years of practice and a generous helping of God-given talent. I’ve seen him play, and I’ve often wondered how invigorating it would be to be able to pick up a guitar any time you want to and do what he can do with it. Roe has, over a whole bunch of albums, taken on a number of styles brilliantly. His regular band, the 77s, is a rockin’ combo with bluesy overtones, but he waxes country on each Lost Dogs album, and his solo stuff is all over the map. Safe As Milk, all by itself, includes ’80s pop, gospel, boogie-rock, Van Morrison-style soul, and fragile acoustic fingerpicking. Oh, and his elastic voice matches each of these styles with aplomb, as well.
As if that weren’t enough diversity, Roe has recently launched an instrumental guitar series that opens up a few more musical doors for him. The first in this set is called Daydream, and is a collaboration with 77s bassist Mark Harmon. Daydream had minimal distribution when it first appeared some years ago, but now Roe has dressed up his baby in fresh new clothes and sent it out into the world on his own label.
This, my friends, is a sweet disc. It opens, coincidentally enough, with a similar cover of “Sleepwalk,” but Roe’s is subtler and serves more as an introduction to the 58 minutes of clean guitar bliss that follows. On beds of lush keyboards, Roe lays down some delicious solos, especially on “Amber Waves” and “Dancing Out on the Moonlit Nile.” There’s not much in the way of memorable melody here, like there is on Satriani’s disc, but Roe is more likely to sweep you away just with the flow of his playing.
Daydream is definitely mood music, but there’s quite a bit of musicality to it. It’s one of those discs that can send you somewhere else, but stands up to scrutiny as well, should you decide to stay where you are and listen intently. I’d recommend letting yourself go, however. By the time the nearly formless “Herald the Bud” fades into the closing reprise of “Sleepwalk,” you’ll undoubtedly feel like you’ve just returned from a pleasant journey. This isn’t fluttery new-age crapola, though – it’s a concrete musical work suffused with atmosphere.
And it just happens to sound really good on my air guitar.
You can buy Daydream at Roe’s brand-spankin’-new website, www.michaelroe.com.
I had hoped to include thoughts on the second installment of Roe’s instrumental series, the just-released Orbis, but my pre-ordered copy has not yet arrived. Since I’ll be reviewing two more of Roe’s new records in the coming weeks (the 77’s new EP Direct and Roe’s new solo acoustic disc Say Your Prayers), I’ll just add that in. I get to see Roe play four times this week – once with the 77s, once by himself and twice with the Lost Dogs – and I’m so excited I can barely get to sleep at night. Thoughts from Cornerstone and a whole bunch of new CDs when I return.
See you in line Tuesday morning.