Graded on a Curve:
Three from The Vin Du Select Qualitite Label

The Vin Du Select Qualitite label, or VDSQ for short, focuses on solo guitar recordings in various styles and sizes, and features entries from an august group of players including Chris Brokaw, Sir Richard Bishop, Bill Orcutt, Alan Licht, Michael Chapman, and Thurston Moore. With the release of Chuck Johnson’s Balsams, Anthony Pasquarosa’s Abbandonato da Dio Nazione, and Mark McGuire’s Ideas of Beginnings, VDSQ has just surpassed the 20-release mark with élan; attractively designed vinyl editions of all three are available now.

Vin Du Select Qualitite put out its first record in 2009, with Joshua Blatchley’s Solo Acoustic Volume One inaugurating a series that’s most recent installment, Icelander Kristin Thora Haraldsdottir’s Volume 14, emerged last spring. As the three LPs under consideration here highlight, not everything VDSQ issues falls under the Solo Acoustic umbrella, nor is the discography composed entirely of full-length discs; a pair of 7-inches by Dan Melchior and Glenn Jones reside amongst the spoils.

VDSQ is run by Steve Lowenthal, who some may know as the publisher of Swingset, a terrific and sadly defunct zine that flourished during the ’00s, and he’s also the writer of Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist. VDSQ sets by Jones and Sarah Louise Henson underscore the subject of Lowenthal’s authorship as quite germane to the label’s raison d’être; as the catalog numbers shoot off into all sorts of complementary guitar zones, the American Primitive is never out of sight.

The label’s stylistic terrain now encompasses Balsams’ pedal steel ambiance, Abbandonato da Dio Nazione’s soundtrack to an unmade Spaghetti Western, and Ideas of Beginnings’s crisply flowing blend of melodicism and loop-based techniques. Although much of VDSQ’s output is still in print, acquiring this sweet trifecta while it’s hot would make a fine introduction to Lowenthal’s curatorial skills; that the contributions of Pasquarosa and McGuire are return engagements only reinforces this scenario.

Of the three, Ideas of Beginnings possesses the most deliberate sonic trajectory, opening with a handful of folkish selections that transition from pretty miniatures into lengthier strummers. Meanwhile, the mood gradually shifts toward the almost coffeehouse Americana of the brief “Late Summer Early Evening” and into a pair of numbers concerned with nature and geography, the tidy “The Clock Strikes with Soft Rain,” which indeed includes the sound of precipitation, and “Serpent Mount Coyote Song.”

Along with his participation in Emeralds, McGuire’s best-known stuff is probably the records he cut for Editions Mego; that’s 2010’s Living with Yourself, ’11’s Get Lost, and the 2CD compilation from the same year, A Young Person’s Guide to Mark McGuire. Ideas of Beginnings’s latter portion most closely resembles the art-Kraut-drone approach of the guitarist’s earlier days, and it’s a welcome return.

Folks into Robert Fripp, and particularly his collabs with Eno, should take note. “To Continue” exudes a gentleness that triggered thoughts of Evening Star, while “By the Light of the Freezing Pond” and finale “Eleven Sevens” cozy up to the beautifully woozy glide of No Pussyfooting. But the similarities to Fripp are broadened by McGuire’s own personality, and his latest is just as easily recommendable to fans of Sarah Lipstate’s work as Noveller.

Based on his involvement in the band Gluebag, Massachusetts’ Anthony Pasquarosa sprang forth from lo-fi punk soil, though his role in the openly Harry Smith-indebted Heaven and Earth Magic makes it clear his horizons were attractively broadened en route to Vin Du Select Qualitite; his first record for the label arrived in 2014 as the seventh volume in the Solo Acoustic series. Morning Meditations came out the next year, and now here’s Abbandonato da Dio Nazione, which follows My Pharaoh, My King, cut in partnership with Sunburned Hand of the Man’s John Maloney and issued in January by Feeding Tube.

Pasquarosa’s latest is packaged as the score to a Spaghetti Western. As VDSQ’s description mentions the properties of LSD more than once, perhaps the more appropriate descriptor is psychedelic, but import oaters were often visually and narratively bent, especially when low of budget. However, the cover of Abbandonato da Dio Nazione does conjure thoughts of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s full-tilt bonkers El Topo and Monte Hellman’s comparatively restrained but more durable The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind.

The music ultimately transcends these comparisons. Offering “Godforsaken Country” in four parts and “Run for Life, Death is Near” in three, Pasquarosa tackles the concept without reservation, and in so doing isn’t constricted by it. Faux soundtracks are perpetually in danger of becoming too damned cutesy, or if not that, then too reverent, or obnoxiously over the top, or at the other extreme, underwhelmingly predictable; from the Spanish-tinged opening sequence of “Godforsaken Country,” Pasquarosa manages to elude these pitfalls, mainly through depth of conception.

The Leone-style gunshots that commence a pair of “Run for Life, Death is Near” segments are cool, but far more resonant is the sound of horse hooves spanning the length of “Upon Nebraska Prairies,” the element becoming integral rather than mere flavoring. It’s also one of two tracks to utilize banjo, with the instrumental landscape widened further via servings of baroque organ and psych keyboard. Along with the Spanish hue and non-trite Morricone flourishes, Pasquarosa takes an American Primitive framework into fresh areas, and altogether this is a remarkable achievement.

On Balsams, Chuck Johnson sets aside the six and occasionally twelve string axes that have put him near the forefront of contemporary Guitar Soli. This is no exaggeration; he figures on two Tompkins Square comps, Beyond Berkeley Guitar and Imaginational Anthem Vol. 7, while Crows in the Basilica, his 2013 LP for Three Lobed Recordings, is an absolute treat.

Johnson’s been on the scene since the early ’90s, first as a member of the Chapel Hill outfit Spatula, then as part of Idyll Swords, and finally joining the terribly undersung Research Triangle instrumental unit Shark Quest. Velvet Arc, Johnson’s 2016 LP for Trouble in Mind brought him back into contact with a band, the territory somewhat resembling Shark Quest in fact, but it’s also where he warmed up the pedal steel. Balsams finds him alone again, with just some non-flash bass notes for company, plunging deep into a post-rock sphere that’s as much about Eno-esque ambience as it is elevated twang.

While the pedal steel can evoke visions of lonely people staring deep into their umpteenth glass of beer, Johnson avoids the maudlin or the despondent to instead personify the celestial, and dare it be said, the uplifting. In terms of mood and tempo, it is the least varied of these VDSQ offerings, and by a wide margin, but purposely and productively so. For folks into the neo-New Age, Balsams is the pick, but the choice of instrument and the skillful less-is-more approach helps it to stand out in an increasingly crowded field.

Ideas of Beginnings
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Abbandonato da Dio Nazione
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Balsams
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