“We wish to point out,” wrote the poet Amy Lowell in her Imagist manifesto of 1916, “that there is nothing so uninspiring nor so old-fashioned as an aeroplane of the year 1911.” Her point (or maybe it’s mine) is that nothing ages quite as quickly as the “new” and its de rigueur revolutionary rhetoric. If you’ve ever worked at a web development company, where a hyperbolic and hysterical futurism imbues every bleeding-edge utterance – even those having to do with coffee and expense reporting – then you know the truth of this. You might as well have everyone talk through a vocoder all the time.
You know, sometimes, genuine invention and innovation arrive wearing an old pair of slippers. Scott Barkan’s 2012 album Little Days comes on like the low-key musings and delicate instrumental latticework of a gentleman eccentric: maybe a little weird, but in a fond, grandfatherly way. From the deprecating title on down, the tone here is one of modest, self-effacing melancholia – whence comes, let’s face it, so much of the most achingly beautiful music. Joy is rhythm, but sadness is melody, if you want to know why there are so many sadness junkies out there.
Barkan writes warm, pretty, quiescent songs, sophisticated songs of loneliness, regret and honest, well-meaning failure, delivered in the folksy and unassuming style of a reduced-acid Randy Newman. While the songs on Little Days are indeed “little” – micro in their imagistic focus and pathologically modest in their claims – they play out leisurely, spaciously, with few clocking in at much under five minutes. This, it turns out, is a wonderful thing, because Scott Barkan is a masterful guitarist – really, a total whiz of a rare order.
It’s a slow dazzle, his guitar-playing, in some ways so easygoing that you might fail even to notice it. In form and address, his lines amble by in the familiar envelope of the blues lick, the bluegrass run, the folky fingerpicked figure. It’s toneful, it’s tasteful and it goes down smooth if you let it.
But the real, radical action is internal, in the note-to-note of it; in the harmonic implications; in the fluid, impressionistic colors; and in the high-rez melodies that are anything but feel-good standard fare. You think that you’re getting Larry Campbell, but you’re really getting Bill Frisell – if you want it. Barkan gives you the choice: a resigning, demure porch rocker or a quietly subversive avant-gardist? It’s all in there.
Listen to some of Barkan’s previous solo efforts in the instrumental trio Barky and you’ll know that he can burn, blow and skronk as well as any other self-respecting downtown scenester. But all great guitarists – perhaps even Yngwie and Satch – carry somewhere in their bag their store of “sad cowboy songs.” Usually, it is best that they should stay in the bag. Barkan, who made his name as a sideman with the excellent pan-Americana songwriter Howard Fishman, just happens to have a passel of deceptively casual, musically and lyrically deep cowboy songs to play for you, if you will have them.
He has two area appearances coming up: Saturday, June 22 at Two Boots Hudson Valley in Red Hook at 7:30 p.m., and Thursday, June 27 at Oasis in New Paltz at 10 p.m. Check out Little Days at https://scottbarkan.bandcamp.com and make a decision that we can all live with. One of the reasons that Scott Barkan deserves your attention is that he really doesn’t clamor for it at all.
Scott Barkan, Saturday, June 22, 7:30 p.m., Two Boots Hudson, 4604 Route 9G, Red Hook; Thursday, July 27, 10 p.m., Oasis Café, 58 Main Street, New Paltz.