Fingerstyle guitarist Howard Emerson’s latest CD, It Ain’t Necessarily So, opens with the easy going groove of “But I digress…” The listener is immediately pulled in and set up nicely for this album of mainly solo guitar pieces. The artist’s knack for catchy rhythms and string-bending phrases lit up with tasty licks are all there on what sounds like an unhurried stroll through a pleasant, sun-dappled afternoon.
The second tune It Ain’t Necessarily So is the thematic “Sit Calm, Leigh,” which quickens the pace, but is even more cheerful with its strong, chiming melody that repeats across descending bass notes, until the lively refrain takes over in the trebles. This song-without-words would make a great soundtrack for the opening credits of a weekend radio program, or perhaps even a popular television series.
Howard Emerson’s style is easily recognizable by its authoritative thumb-driven rhythms matched with an intelligent use of mid range and treble that weave texture and highlight around simple yet fresh melodies. Well-oiled but unhurried, regardless of how fast the tempo, nothing appears superfluous or showy, even at its most complicated. And there is always that impeccable timing, with flow and tension, space suddenly appearing and just as quickly filling up again. That is all notably present on tunes like “Pop Top” and “That’s What She Said.”
As with his previous album, Emerson includes some brief interludes that act like musical palate cleansers between the longer compositions. The first on the new record is the whimsical “Pablo’s Crew,” a funky minute of music with a tinge of Latin flavor. And later, there is the quietly evocative “Truth in Lies,” which might have been even more satisfying if it were developed into a longer piece.
But then, the artist has crafted this record keeping in mind the old adage of “leave ‘em wanting more,” rather than exhausting the possibilities by dredging up too many codas, as seems often the case with certain other fingerstylists.
The title track gets down and dirty with some suspenseful bassy chords before a spidery melody line crawls up over top. This sparse and languid rendition of the old Gershwin tune sounds like it was arranged for Billie Holiday rather than Cab Callowy. The ring of his maple guitar, custom made by David Flammang, provides the fat, chiming trebles on par with the round bass and clear mids that allow the registers to sound like a trio of musicians joining together or stepping up when inspired.
Emerson’s first CD, Crossing Crystal Lake, is likewise a collection of well-craft instrumentals for solo guitar. The follow up, A Tale to Tell, included some songs featuring the artists singing voice, as well as overdubbed guitar solos and occasionally a rhythm section of bass and drums.
On the new CD there is one actual song, “Crazy Mamma.” Prefaced by the interlude “Pack Your Trackage,” which sounds a bit like an Appalachian fiddle tune, Crazy Mama comes off like the cooler, big city cousin and centers on the lament, “Crazy Mama, where you been so long?” While there are three verses of singing, there is plenty of room for bluesy instrumental breaks that say as much or more for the fella looking for his long lost baby.
Where “Crazy Mamma” is the loan vocal, “Hello Calliope” contains the only multi-track overdubbing of guitars on the record, as at least two guitars appear, tuned or cappoed to different registers. They produce something that sounds like a 12-string guitar in cahoots with a zither, playing a jaunty march in lockstep, as if accompanying a procession of preened thoroughbreds cantering in their ornate harness and raiment.
Emerson’s music has an overall sense of Americana about it, but isn’t easily slotted into any particular genre. There are wisps or reflections of R&B, historical folk songs and Old Time country tunes, Ragtime and traditional Blues, and in certain cases Latin and Rock n Roll. And at times a single tune may suggest more than one of them.
While some tracks are bluesier than others, some are more poppy, or even churchy. Many are written in alternate tunings, and most of those are cross-tuned so the key is something other than the root of the tuning itself (no small feat when done with such mastery.) But all are neatly constructed and expertly rendered.
And that includes Emerson’s occasional arrangement of other people’s compositions. The other cover appearing on this record is a meditative rendition of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” the 60s ballad based closely on the eighteenth century classical piece “Plaisir d’amour.” Here it is played with sustained chords tied together by brief strings of lilting notes, which give it the quality of a Methodist hymn.
The final tune is “Wound Tight.” It’s clipped and urban edginess ends abruptly and leaves this listener with a sudden sense of loss.
And that says a lot right there, since many instrumental guitar albums can be satisfying, but are more than enough of a good thing by the time they end. This one often sends me back to the playlist to start it a second time.
And that is one man’s word on Howard Emerson’s latest CD, It Ain’t Necessarily So.
Excerpts from this and other CDs can be heard at www.howardemerson.com