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Bill Frisell: Ghost Town

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illustration of Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell’s illustrious, elastic recording career began with his too little praised In Line (ECM), a mostly solo (sometimes using multi-tracked layers), mostly acoustic and unfailingly lyrical project, in its own idiosyncratic way. Eighteen odd years and many idiomatic swerves in the road later, Frisell has made his second solo album, Ghost Town, and the two titles might be viewed as bookends for the adventure so far.

What’s remarkable about Ghost Town relates directly to what’s remarkable about Frisell’s music on the whole over the past nearly two decades: However many seeming shifts in direction he takes, jazz to new music to American to Nashville to whereversville, it all hangs together, as logical elements in the Frisell puzzle. Ditto this recording, freely overdubbed, like a painter dealing with guitaristic layers. Layering on a stylistic level takes place freely, as well, as Frisell ventures a version of “When I Fall in Love” on six-string banjo (the freshest treatment of that song in years), an achingly sweet steel string take on “My Man’s Gone Now,” the country-fried, Frisell-ified stuff of “Wildwood Flower” and Hank Williams’ classic American lament “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Basically, Frisell does here what he has always done, and followed his heart (pun intended: he also includes a version of the old John McLaughlin tune in 11/8, “Follow Your Heart,” with some fetching twang added). Most of the material, though, is Frisell’s own-and his touch is very much his own, too. The title track is as bittersweet and hummable as “What a World” is an ear-tweaking cubist folk song, and as the blues-basted “Big Bob” sounds like something from an imaginary plane where ECM-colored fjords and the Delta meet. He also deploys vibrato-laden electric guitar tones, dreamy looping and effects-with-a-cause (i.e., “Outlaw,” “Winter Always Turns to Spring” and the closer, “Under a Golden Sky,” which leaves us in a delicious state of suspended emotional animation).

If the title suggests an empty, abandoned domain, Ghost Town is anything but, musically speaking. Spare as the setting is, Frisell invests a lively world of feeling behind economic material. That ability to invest a note or a phrase with meaning is partly what has distinguished the Frisell-ian voice, and sets him apart from other guitarists who rush in to fill in the spaces, on an instrument with infamous note-decay problems.

This is one of those albums with a deceptively casual surface, but is, at root, the polar opposite of background music. You have to listen to it closely, and from start to finish, to get its ultimate impact and message. If there was any doubt, here’s confirmation: he’s the friendly guitar anti-hero of our time.