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Bill Orcutt - Odds Against Tomorrow Music Album Reviews


Stepping away from the overt historicism of previous recordings, the guitarist opts for a subtler—but just as expressive—investigation of folk and blues.

Malleability is built into the character of American traditional music. Rooted in oral storytelling, foundational songs like the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Oh Shenandoah” have been known by several names and attached to various meanings and ideologies over the decades. The former has had multiple lives since it emerged as a popular tune in the mid 1800s: Pete Seeger anthemized it as “Solidarity Forever,” which guitarist Bill Orcutt recorded on his 2013 album A History of Every One, offering one of the most radical takes on the melody in its nearly two-century lifespan. Orcutt takes the elasticity inherent in folk music and augments it with avant-garde jazz and free improvisation, two other distinctly American forms. A dialogue between these traditions has formed the basis of Orcutt’s solo albums over the past decade, as he has recorded lacerated versions of “Star Spangled Banner,” “Nearer My God to Thee,” “Black Betty,” and other well-worn songs.

Odds Against Tomorrow, Orcutt’s latest solo LP, steps away from overt renditions of popular melodies and returns to a subtler investigation of folk and blues. The raw melancholy lurking in the shadows of recordings by pioneers like Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Charley Patton also hangs heavy over Orcutt’s original compositions. On his early solo releases, most notably A New Way to Pay Old Debts, from 2009, and the follow-up EP Way Down South, his mournful themes were punctuated by spasms of pentatonic runs and extemporaneous howling, giving the music a wild, unrestrained nature. By contrast, Orcutt’s playing on Odds Against Tomorrow is notably restrained and frequently threatens beauty. While earlier LPs felt like spontaneous outpourings, this album feels worked over, informed by lessons learned from the iconic composers he has spent the past half-decade recontextualizing.

One of the most notable indicators of this approach is Orcutt’s use of multitracking on three songs, a first in his solo career. On the title track, he traces an understated chord progression in the left channel, allowing the song’s fractured melodic line to dissolve and reconstitute itself in the right, peaking in a wailing, single-note outburst. Rather than boxing the songs into a distinctive harmonic path, the technique allows Orcutt to indulge in more intricately crafted solos, dexterously flying up and down the neck of his four-string electric guitar. If his early work channeled Ornette Coleman in its ability to imply complex changes without their constant, explicit presence, this new technique brings him closer to the conventional electric blues pantheon.

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Despite these increasingly polyphonic excursions, Odds Against Tomorrow is defined largely by a considered quietude. The one cover on the album, an arrangement of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” feels enveloped by negative space, serenely picked with a slight tremolo effect. Album closer “Man Dies” is two minutes of a sentimental, unadorned melody that ends with the buzz of an amplifier decaying into nothingness. Orcutt’s slow transformation from antagonistic abstractionist to wistful minimalist has had many detours, and he continues to explore torrential exuberance in his collaborative work, especially with free-jazz drummer Chris Corsano. But on Odds Against Tomorrow he has found a way to settle down without settling into complacency. The album retains the core elements of his best work, and his restless, postmodern exploration of the American lexicon, while refining what makes those qualities potent. Refusing to repeat himself, he takes tradition as a living thing, blazing new trails to familiar vistas.


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