Howard Emerson – A Tale to Tell

(From the archives, April 2011)

One man’s word on…

Howard Emerson’s A Tell to Tell

There is some irony found in how today’s technology and the modern media have allowed so many more artists to put out recordings, yet some of those most-talented get lost in the countless CDs flooding the market. Howard Emerson second CD, A Tale to Tell, is a good example of this. He is one of those guitarists whose music is less known than it should be, and is appreciated nowhere near its due.
Those who know him only from his first album, Crossing Crystal Lake, will find some surprises on A Tale to Tell. The earlier record consisted of solo guitar instrumentals, each recorded live on an individual acoustic guitar. This follow-up album opens with a full-fledged song featuring Emerson’s purring voice backed by bass, drums and multi-tracked guitars.

Actually, it all begins with a micro-track entitled Roll Call, where the artist strums once on the six acoustic guitars used on the record. This is followed immediately by the syncopated intro to the song, Flirty Skirt, which kicks up a beat and pulls the listener into a groove the way few guitarists can achieve this side of Ry Cooder. It is the kind of intro that I find ideal for heading out on a brisk march toward the morning subway, but it would be just as good for someone accelerating onto a busy highway.

With the rattling rolls of a brushed snare drum, snapping fingers and some liquid-chrome slide guitar filling up the curves, Flirty Skirt is a slinky, sassy little number about a guy seeing his baby in a slinky, sassy little number.

You know what I like
So, Baby, step into the light
With that flirty skirt
Silk stockings and high heels
Put on that flirty skirt
Because you know you love how it feels

And the bottleneck slide guitar does just that across the break and on through the outro.

Phelps, New York is known for its sauerkraut festival and that is at least partially responsible for inspiring the composition Phelps Flats, an open tuning romp, played on a single guitar with a throbbing bass that drives a bluesy melody past a refrain as uplifting as country church spires. The Bells of Tina’s Kitchen has a spiritual quality of its own, with the unhurried Celtic air of a pretty Irish morning, where even the ring from the dried out, 70 year-old guitar resembles a hammer dulcimer.

A Tale to Tell is an expose on the scandal that is yellow journalism, as practiced by the supermarket tabloids. Where “a bitter honey and a mad wife is the only thing that sells.” A master of tempo and cross-tuning, Emerson’s clever lyrics and subtly expressive vocals ride the crest of some of my favorite guitar playing on the album, with a long-legged, loping bass punctuated with tension-releasing pull offs and tasty licks right where they belong.

The artist knows his instruments well and each track sounds like he put serious thought into which tool best suited the individual piece. They include a 1935 Gibson L-00, used on A Tale to Tell as well as a concert-sized Sovereign from the 1920s, made from some mystery wood in a time when a working man’s guitar had a great deal of character and now has a ring that cannot be reproduced without half a century played into the top. Not that luthiers don’t give it a good try; there is a modern guitar on the record made by David Flammang that emulates the classic round-body Gibsons like the L-2. The model is known as the El Majestic, and it gives off its own lovely chimes and a rich bass.

For the slide playing, Emerson employs his big, ol’ Gibson L-5 conversion that started its life as a tenor guitar sometime before Black Friday. He uses it to great effect on the Piping Plover Waltz, a lazy river of a tune with a languid pulse that leaves plenty of room for the bottleneck to glide up single strings and down into rounded chords, coaxed with great skill out of the clear spruce soundboard and unfettered maple body of the old archtop guitar. It is as good a piece for slide as anything Kottke or Cooder has come up with.

The other two guitars on the record appear on one song each. Every Twist and Turn is a contemplative discourse between the warm, hollow log bass and the fat, resonant treble of a Martin OM-18V, actually one of the two prototypes built for this model in 1997. After all that clear Red spruce and open and airy maple, the mahogany and Sitka spruce of the OM sounds downright lush. It is the cut that seems most like an outtake from Crossing Crystal Lake, a record that makes the “all-time favorite guitar albums list” of many people fortunate enough to own a copy.

For all the impressive playing on this disc, it is the cover of Chuck Berry’s Maybellene that puts the album over the top. A Guild F-212 12-string guitar fires up one of the most infectious rhythm parts I have ever heard. It is the kind of riff that will get stuck in my head until I satisfy the itch to hear that song. The vocal lays down the rap about the wayward woman leading her man on a high-speed chase while the bottleneck smokes it up on the 20’s Gibson TGL-5. It is easy to forget this much music is being made by two acoustic guitars, a lone voice and a pair of hands clapping out the time.

Unless my ears deceive, it is back to that 70-year old Sovereign for the hopping romp called …and Why Not? that has a lively, Country-Gospel feel. The bass and drums return for When the Whistle Blows, the fourth and final song, that tells the whimsical tale of a working man whose life is marked by that whistle blowing at work and at home and it has a bit of a surprise ending.

To close out the record, we get Nokie’s Blue Bottle, another righteous slide number that starts off with a steady bass cadence, thumbed at about 120 beats per minute. Then a melody begins to speak in short, slidey phrases until it grows bolder as it works its way up into a cheerful refrain, chorded by Emerson’s strong, thick fingers – no small task on a guitar set up with high action for better sliding (I’ve played it.) And then that bottleneck slide jumps back in for the crescendo and satisfying, harmonic finish.

As a sort of bonus there are a number of musical fragments on the record, interspersed like pallet cleansers between the main courses of a sumptuous meal. Each is about 30 seconds in length and leaves the listener wishing they would last a lot longer.

Anyone who appreciates the artistry of acoustic, fingerstyle guitarists in the American tradition owes it to themselves to get to know Howard Emerson’s music. While Crossing Crystal Lake remains a fine album, A Tell to Tale is a fuller exhibition of the artist at work. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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