A week or two back when I took in Moon—excellent movie, by the way—I saw the preview for a new documentary called It Might Get Loud. The premise is simple: Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White all get together and talk guitar. They jam. They discuss their approach to the instrument. Their egos drape over them like suits of armor. Here's the trailer:
Though I'm not a big fan of any of these guys or their bands, the doc still looks appealing to me. It seems like it's trying to get at the craft of playing the guitar rather than a full-on cock-off. I've rarely seen movies (documentaries or fiction) that truly capture what it feels like to make music or to think about music—that giddy feeling you get when you put the right two chords together or eke a new sound out of your instrument by hitting a string in a certain way or finding the perfect balance between your effects pedals and your own playing ability. There's this incommunicable joy in making music—different from writing songs or listening to an album or seeing a show. Once is probably the last great movie to get at this feeling. And my hopes are up for this film, too.
That said, I know I'll leave this film at least a little unfulfilled because I really am not a fan of any of these guys—them, their bands, or their playing styles. I was joking with my wife that I'd love to see a do-over of this documentary that instead features Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, Kevin Shields, and J. Mascis. If you want to get inter-generational then bring in John Cale and Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine. Talk to Ian Williams of Don Caballero and Battles. Maybe Bradford Cox of Deerhunter or David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors for the latest generation. (I didn't mention this in my Dirty Projectors take last week, but I do really respond to Longstreth's guitar playing—it's probably my favorite aspect of Bitte Orca).
I've talked about my favorite kind of guitarists before; they're the guys who focus as much (if not more) on textures as on technical ability. I was reminded of my bias all over again when I saw that trailer, then a week later picking up US Maple's 1999 album Talker. I haven't heard Talker for a good eight or nine years, but returning to it just reminded me all over again how brilliant this band was. Sure, they didn't make the kind of records you want to put on at a summer barbecue—Al Johnson's voice might the quintessential acquired taste—but fuck if they're not geniuses when it comes to sheer musicianship. Every US Maple song feels like it's held together by paste and band-aids. Each player—Pat Sampson on drums and Mark Shippy and Todd Rittman on guitars—feels like he wants to walk off in a different direction, yet they somehow adhere just enough to keep their songs moving forward. They never devolve into aimless noise.
- US Maple: Go to Braises
If you ever watch tennis then you've probably heard the commentators say that a player has "great touch" or "great hands." What they mean is the player has a skill and finesse in his game that goes way beyond a monster serve or a power forehand. A player with great touch knows how to adjust the pace of a match mid-point, to shift from defense to offense, to place a shot anywhere on the court with as much delicacy as it requires. (If you watched this weekend's Roddick/Federer classic then you can see it: Federer has amazing touch; Roddick not as much.) This is a good analogy for what I love in a great guitarist. Great touch. They know how to go out of tune gracefully, they know the difference between volume and intensity—not always related—and they know when to play loose and to when to stay tight. When I listen to US Maple I can practically visualize Shippy and Rittman's fingers on their fretboards, applying pressure—but not too much, almost none at all—to the strings as they alternately stumble and shimmy through a track. White, Page, and the Edge warn that "it might get loud"—to me that's like a tennis player (Ivo Karlovic or Andy Roddick, say) claiming that they'll beat you with their serve. Okay guys, let it get loud. A loud, ripping bluesy solo can have its magic, but it doesn't tell me you have great touch.
Five more songs with great touch: