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Marisa Anderson - Cloud Corner Music Album Reviews

Marisa Anderson - Cloud Corner Music Album Reviews
On her Thrill Jockey debut, the solo guitarist creates truly borderless music, fusing the diverse global traditions she favors without drawing too much attention to the act of juxtaposition.

In the fall of 2015, a fan’s criticism caught the guitarist Marisa Anderson by surprise. She had just finished her set in Sant Feliu de Guíxols, a quintessential seaside town on Spain’s northeastern coast, when a British expatriate confronted her with a question: Why don’t you play any happy songs? She told him happiness wasn’t her job and walked away. But his provocation stuck: Could she write a solo guitar instrumental so buoyant, no one would mistake it for sad? Absolutely. Late on Cloud Corner, Anderson’s terrific Thrill Jockey debut, she practically jaunts through a stunning four-minute track named for the city where she accepted the challenge. With a miniature melody that rises, falls, and repeats in slightly irregular patterns, the song recalls waves lapping onto the shore beneath the fading springtime sun. Using just six amplified strings, Anderson conjures the wide-eyed wonder of a tourist seeing sights they never knew could exist.

Anderson has written plenty of songs that don’t scan as sullen; 2013’s frenetic “Galax” comes to mind, as does 2016’s resplendent “Into the Light.” But on Cloud Corner, “Sant Feliu de Guíxols” is the exception that at least suggests a rule: One of the best emotional mediums in the field of solo guitar, Anderson is a master of lovely melancholy. Written in memory of a favorite hiking trail that was incinerated by fires that swept around her hometown of Portland, Oregon in 2017, “Angel’s Rest” lets a sentimental phrase fade into the distance again and again, as if Anderson is setting every memory anyone ever made there free to drift away in smoke. “Lament” stems from the war in Syria and the ongoing refugee crisis it has created. Anderson elicits scratched notes from her slide guitar; they quiver and moan, the sound of a cry someone is trying to suppress. And “Sanctuary” is a tender lullaby meant for adults. With its graceful, glowing chords, the tune feels warm and inviting—but whenever it begins to lift, the weight of reality pulls it toward the ground again. In providing shelter, Anderson acknowledges the danger that waits outside.

One exultant song, Anderson’s uncanny ability to articulate emotions wordlessly, and her new-found enthusiasm for keyboards and Spanish guitars notwithstanding, the real feat of Cloud Corner is how well Anderson has learned to fuse the musical traditions she favors without drawing attention to the juxtaposition itself. “Surfacing,” for instance, begins with a subdued and ominous riff that seems to slink at the edges of the microphone. Anderson slowly answers her guitar with a twilit keyboard line, reflecting the quiet ascendance of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. The contrasting sounds move in tandem, seesawing between bluesy melancholy and classical transcendence, or between heaven and earth.

For “Slow Ascent,” Anderson plays a stately series of patient chords with her guitar and a Wurlitzer, evoking the stately minimalism of latter-day Earth. She surrounds those slow tones, though, with flurries of brief, tinny notes borrowed from the Tuareg tradition of northwest Africa. The idea continues one of Anderson’s most consistent compositional approaches, in which she subdivides one slow riff with a string of smaller melodies, played quickly and quietly between its notes. (You can hear her do it on opener “Pulse,” a preamble that serves as a concise summary of what Anderson accomplished before Cloud Corner.) But during “Slow Ascent” and elsewhere on the album, she ties this technique to sources of inspiration outside of her country and blues bedrock. Anderson’s music now seems borderless.

All of these threads—the extra instruments, the commingled influences, the artificial binary between happy and sad—intertwine in the title track, one of the most beautiful and transfixing solo guitar recordings in years. Anderson starts with a flickering electric riff that seems to weave nervously through space, moving like a taxi through late-afternoon traffic. She soon chases it with a complementary acoustic guitar, in a brisk counterpoint that wraps a soft surface around the harder, heavier line. The song simultaneously recalls the “continuous music” of pianist Lubomyr Melnyk (and his descendant, the guitarist James Blackshaw) and the incisive Delta blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins. What’s more, the sound seems to linger between a smile and a frown, suggesting that life could forever go either way. It’s Anderson’s best response to that critic in Spain, a wordless admission that her songs are, above all else, honest.

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