Graded on a Curve:
Bill Orcutt,
Odds Against Tomorrow

With his latest, guitarist Bill Orcutt plugs in and delivers a concise set brimming with passages of substantial beauty. While his prior acoustic explorations were noted for their heightened, often thorny abstraction, with Odds Against Tomorrow the man makes tangible strides into accessibility without sacrificing the distinctiveness, indeed the otherness, of his work. As Orcutt’s friend and Charalambides guitarist Tom Carter offers in his promo essay, the LP’s ten tracks are almost a rock record, an idea we’ll expand upon below. The album is out October 11 through the guitarist’s own Palilalia label.

Bill Orcutt’s Odds Against Tomorrow takes its name from a 1959 film noir directed by Robert Wise with a screenplay by Abraham Polonsky (under a pseudonym, as he was then blacklisted by the House Unamerican Activities Committee) and starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Ed Begley, and Gloria Grahame. Pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, assembling an orchestra peppered with jazz heavyweights (including the great guitarist Jim Hall), composed, arranged and conducted the soundtrack.

That Orcutt borrowed the title from Wise’s film is a major point of emphasis in the PR for this record, though the endeavor isn’t an homage, or at least it’s never described as such, and in fact it’s never explicitly stated if the music (or just the opening title track) is inspired by the movie, or if Orcutt even considers himself a fan of Wise’s film.

This isn’t unusual for the guitarist, whose 2013 dive into the American Songbook A History of Every One and its eponymous 2017 electric counterpart- were talking worker’s songs, Disney tunes, Irving Berlin, Christmas songs, spirituals, blues, Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” the national anthem of the USA and more, were presented (but not played) with a discernible detachment.

To elaborate, there was no sense of the guitarist interpreting material that was long-loved, or even simply an engagement with the canon, a la a singer or instrumentalist in the jazz realm. That’s not to suggest a lack of the meaningful, but rather that Orcutt’s reasons (hey, everyone has them) were a mystery, an ambiguity that deepens the allure of both records and sharpens Orcutt’s oeuvre as a whole.

Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow is a late noir and almost a great one, though I remember it as being a little heavy-handed (or maybe a lot, it’s been a long time) in its symbolism and commentary on racism, making it something of an opposite to Orcutt’s latest and his work overall, though his discography offers more range than one might assume for a guitarist working largely in solo mode.

It’s a circumstance that increases with the “almost rock” aura of Odds Against Tomorrow. Almost rock, because there’s no drummer present for one thing (the main thing), though it’s not like Orcutt can’t hang with drummers; Brace Up!, his duo record from last year with rhythm cyclone Chris Corsano, is a comely and wild beast.

Let’s put it another way. Odds Against Tomorrow is very rock cognizant, so by extension it’s far more likely to appeal to rock fans than is his playing on 2009’s return to the scene A New Way to Pay Old Debts. But don’t go thinking this new record is poised to disappoint folks who were bowled over by Debts and its 2011 follow-up How the Thing Sings, as his new one offers an immediate, near-arresting beauty move.

This is partly due to the use of recording technology in a modest environment (Orcutt’s living room) with the mixing help of fellow guitarist and pedal steel man Chuck Johnson. The opening title track, “The Writhing Jar” and “Already Old” are examples of multitracking, a tactic that maximizes his ability to engage in wonderful note tangles but also allows him to soar like he’s holding court on a ballroom stage from somewhere during the original psychedelic era.

It can feel at times like two guitarists engaging in a dialogue as the drummer and bassist lay out, though the record never feels incomplete. Instead, it’s more like the sound layering of Les Paul or John Lee Hooker (Carter mentions both) and maybe Bill Evans’ Conversations with Myself, or perhaps a more appropriate jazz comparison, the groundbreaking multitracking work of Lennie Tristano.

All three of Orcutt’s excursions into doubling radiate with beauty and occasionally with cyclical intensity (“The Writhing Jar”) or jagged elements (“Already Old”). It’s in the single-tracked numbers that a more contemplative gorgeousness arises, particularly in standout “The Conversion Experience” and closer “Man Dies.” Elsewhere, “Stray Dog” gets downright bluesy and “Moon River” returns to the standards concept touched on above (though it interestingly postdates by a few years the movie that titles this album).

“All Your Buried Corpses Begin To Speak” and “Judith Reconsidered” are just gems solidifying another exceptional LP from Bill Orcutt. As said, I admire Wise’s film but am knocked out by the record sharing its title. To liken this Odds Against Tomorrow in quality to classics of the noir era, it’s closer to Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. Hopefully Orcutt continues in this mode and delivers us a work comparable to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil or Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour. He surely has it in him.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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