Turmoil & Tinfoil
One of the great things about the Internet Age is the ability to ramble along the Information Superhighway in search of new music, obsessively-compulsively bouncing off the URL walls on a random journey of discovery. And that’s how this reviewer first heard about Billy Strings last summer.
Unexpected Destination No. 1 was a show posted in the Live Music Archive section of the Internet Library. It was an exceptionally well-made matrix (soundboard/audience composite) recording of a stellar performance by Strings and his band at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes Barre, Pa., on July 13, 2017. From there, one hyperlink led to another, and a profile of the wunderkind flatpicking guitarist-singer-songwriter was slowly amassed.
Fast-forward a few months, and Strings (aka William Apostol) has released his crowdfunded, debut full-length solo CD — and it’s more fun than a barrel of virtuosic monkeys playing guitars, banjos, mandolins and occasionally fiddles.
Bluegrass, newgrass, folk, country and even a psychedelic passage or two; it’s all there, sometimes in the same song.
“On the Line” might conjure an image of “Old and in the Way”-era Jerry Garcia smiling down from above in approval, whereas “Meet Me at the Creek” has a lengthy, cosmos-exploring instrumental section.
“All of Tomorrow” is a “San Antonio Rose”-like number, but then there’s “Living Like an Animal” — which benefits from special guest Peter “Madcat” Ruth‘s contributions on harmonica and Jew’s harp, coming across like an updated “Chicken Train” (Ozark Mountain Daredevils).
“Salty Sheep,” the only song not written by Strings, is a flatpicking-guitar medley of traditional songs performed as a duet with special guest Bryan Sutton.
Strings possesses a lived-in bluegrass tenor voice that belies his looks (20-something going on 16) and can play at nearly the speed of light when he wants. Witness “Pyramid Country,” an instrumental that affords Strings, banjoist Billy Failing and mandolinist Drew Matulich the opportunity to take solos in rotation.
But there’s more to “Pyramid County” than meets the ears. It turns out the song shares its name with a skateboard-centric production and apparel company, one of whose principals did the album’s splendidly surreal cover. Good New Music tracked down artist/businessman J.J. Horner:
“I first heard of Billy a couple of years ago,” Horner told GNM via email. “They came through Arizona and played at the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale. Jackson (Casey, another owner in Pyramid Country) invited me to go and showed me a couple of his live performances on YouTube to further convince me. I’m a bluegrass/guitar-picking fan so it wasn’t a hard sell. …
“Long story short, I met him at the show and we stayed in contact. … He hit me up about a year ago asking me if I’d be down to do album art. … We worked closely on the concept. I find Billy’s music very psychedelic and visual, sometimes even metal. He pointed out a few paintings he liked on my Instagram and sent me a few songs from the album. I applied those painting concepts to how his music makes me feel and came up with a sketch. I texted it to him and he was hyped. Over the next couple of weeks, I sent him progress photos and bounced ideas back and forth. It was a fun process.”
The album owes its mind-boggling recording quality to co-producer and engineer/acoustician Glenn Brown of GBP Studios, in Strings’ home state of Michigan. GNM also reached out to Brown, himself a guitarist who formed fusion bands in the mid-’70s with Bill Laswell and fronts his own Glenn Brown & Intergalactic Spiral:
“I recorded Billy’s album live to 24-track tape with minimal overdubs,” he told GNM in an email. “Then I finished the mix in a hybrid analog-patched-hardware and digital system (Pro Tools HDX at 96k). I recorded most of the echoes and vibe live during the original takes.”
In other words, the sound is virtually the way it was heard while being created in Brown’s expertly designed workspace, captured using the best of both worlds (analog and digital) to help translate the fire, immediacy and beauty of String’s live shows into a studio environment.
1. On The Line
2. Meet Me At The Creek
3. All Of Tomorrow
4. While I’m Waiting Here
5. Living Like An Animal
6. Turmoil & Tinfoil
7. Salty Sheep
9. Dealing Despair
10. Pyramid Country
11. Doin’ Things Right
12. These Memories Of You
Total time: 1:02:40