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Dave Harrington - Pure Imagination, No Country Music Album Reviews

With a group behind him that recalls the electronic jazz splatter of ’90s New York, Dave Harrington’s guitar work becomes a psychedelic, soft-hued quest for transcendence.

Dave Harrington gives himself some context, which is one of the main challenges of the modern guitar soloist. As one half of the electro-jam duo Darkside, Harrington threaded his glimmering instrumental lines through Nicolas Jaar’s downtempo deconstructions. Their 2013 debut Psychic used this formula to ground their compositions and break through to an audience of head dancers in the international language of minimalist space-funk. After one full-length, the duo put the project on hold and Harrington soon hit a different kind of club scene, gigging relentlessly around New York with a variety of configurations and finding an audience amid the local jam cognoscenti.

On Pure Imagination, No Country, recorded with the Dave Harrington Group, the approach owes more to the ’90s electronic jazz splatter of downtown Manhattan clubs like the Knitting Factory than the beats of the trans-national dance floor. The problem of context is still mostly solved, Harrington’s traditional six-string electric guitar is set against the void of anything-is-possible electronics. The sometimes jazz-like project, then, becomes a quest for the transcendently new and comes back with convincing results.

Pure Imagination surfs the tension between Harrington’s lyricism and a psychedelic sense of structure, unafraid to abandon form. Alternating atmospheres (“Dreams Field”) with the occasional freak-beat (“Then I Woke Up”), the pay-offs come when Harrington plays at his most deeply linear. “Belgrade Fever” superficially resembles Darkside with its tightly coiled guitar lines, but it soon cracks open into a long and moody solo, where Harrington shows off his solution to that second main challenge of the modern improvising guitarist: voice.

Throughout the album, Harrington adeptly switches into a mode where his notes cluster like the blooms of small alien flowers. He can sometimes recall Bill Frisell, though Harrington is more likely to dissolve into abstraction. Pure Imagination might even be divided into the too-easy categories of inside and outside, each setting up the other in constant rotation. While credited to the Dave Harrington Group, the music might be one musician or many, a sense of changing scale that only sometimes resolves into anything as obvious as an actual band. When it does, the results are often fantastically strange. "Neoarctic Organs" is the type of song one might find the house trio playing in an otherworldly underground grotto, with Harrington’s band-leading guitar squiggling in colors.

The speed at which the album moves through different voices and approaches also recalls the ’90s jazz scene. Even at its most chill, it rarely settles into one mood for more than a song. At least structurally, the 11-minute “Patch One” comes closest to bridging Harrington’s disciplines, a long and swelling drift with Harrington’s glacial guitar buried in the hum, finally bursting into the light during a bliss-skronk denouement.

The opposing modes of the album are neatly illustrated by its final two pieces. "No Country" is a float through no-time, occasional rhythms pulsing in the distance like a far-off station. And then Harrington gets about as far in as possible with the album’s conclusion: a mostly straightforward instrumental cover of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination,” written for the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Graced with Harrington’s pedal steel, the forces of the void push at the edges of melody and Harrington’s guitar keeps the emptiness at bay.

It breaks open into pedal-steel stardust that might be extended to the horizon by a remix, live improvisation, or loop function. On an album from the post-jazz future, it’s a nostalgic postcard from the far-off past, a universe of melody and form. It is the final destination, a moment of being on the other side of the proverbial stargate—a conclusion to make a listener start all over, to see if this is where it was pointing all along.

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