Album Review

Martin Simpson - Cool And Unusual

Martin Simpson - Cool And Unusual

Martin Simpson's recordings are a utopia of the acoustic guitar. Across them coalesce British, Irish, Scottish, Indian, Mississippi Deltan, Ozarkian, gypsy and European character alike. But Simpson's signature glows through: the trilling and surging dynamics, that raw thunk of thumb punctuating a phrase. His records have always held surprises and hazards, especially the vocals, which sometimes cut with satire -- as on "Dreamtime", an original from his most lyrical record, Red Roses (cut with his wife, Jessica) -- and other times just bluster. His early solo recording Special Agent, likewise, suffers from poor conceptions of great songs such as Guy Clark's "Desperados Waiting For A Train". More recently, the acclaimed Smoke And Mirrors is often just that: Save one crystalline moment, the definitive reading of Bob Franke's "Hard Love", Simpson reaches for more than he commands, his voice breaking under the blues, the playing pressed into bravura. Cool And Unusual, however, is Simpson's best solo record, a project that makes his other instrumental outings seem like apprenticeship. He revamps a suite of traditionals from U.S. and U.K. folk traditions, and save for the spectral and wonderfully unrecognizable "Darling Corey", the arrangements are economical, flashing their intricacy, saying their piece, then stopping, when most hot guitarists would amble into tedium. Like trad-country guitarists before him, Simpson has learned from fiddle recordings and is fascinated by the alchemy of translating "the exquisite mechanics of various fiddle tunes," as he puts it, to the guitar. You can hear it when he makes "Rye Whiskey" into a spry waltz, and in the way the notes on the Scot ballad "Lord Jamie Douglas" hang fire, then fall liquidly away. Simpson also returns to banjo on "Stole And Sold from Africa". On "Deep Blue Sea", a revision of "Catfish Blues" on which he plays the banjo-like cumbus, he is joined by David Lindley on acoustic lap steel. Elsewhere, members of Tarika Sammy lend Malagasian colors -- imagine the quiet, sonic meditation of tablas or talking drums -- while the palette of slide guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps lends a deeper blues. This record will thrill followers of Ry Cooder's recent cross-cultural trips; to me, it sounds like the instrumental recording of the year.