William Ackerman, "A Child's Song"
William Ackerman, "Lion's In The Sky"
William Ackerman, "Ponchartrain"
William Ackerman, Sound Of Wind Driven Rain
Well, it appears that the damn Scheduled button as bitten me in the ass again. I realized today that readers have been staring at a rough draft of a future post for the past few days, as I accidentally published a half-written, half-assed review of the great new album from softest. I am blaming my stupidity on the delirium that has resulted from getting on the Wentz Wagon and not on my stupidity. Anyway, apologies to braeyden, Sean, Inner Islands, and all of beautiful readers. To make up for the snafu, I will try to double my productivity rate this week and spread all of the chill-out music you can handle. And yes, I see the irony of working hard to talk about chill-out. Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
We're gonna start by heading back up Windham Hill to check in again on its founder, William Ackerman; I can't think of a better way to bring the chill to start the week than with his music. We recently took a look at his first album, In Search Of The Turtle's Navel, a solo guitar work that straddled the line between the American Primitive Guitar and New Age. Today, skipping ahead two decades, we look at his 1998 Sound Of Wind Driven Rain LP, which doesn't really get mentioned much in discussions of his best work. I'm a fan though, as it's a great example of how is work evolved. If that first album was an attempt to find his own voice and transcend his influences, this is the results of those early experiments, as Ackerman has found his sound by this time and lost the anxiety of influence. You get a wonderful melding of folk, jazz, classical and world music that is actually kind of hard to classify. That sound gets labeled as New Age, which Ackerman did not accept; it seems like a good shorthand though for knowing what to expect, as this is a acoustic, melodic music that evokes both a state of calmness and, as the title makes clear, the environment and its spaces. New Acoustic might be the best term for it, but it isn't really a phrase that gets thrown around much and seems to suffer from the same vagueness as the New Age label. Sonically, it is probably closest to folk music, with hints of jazz and classical, all centered on Ackerman's mellifluous guitar playing, either alone or in dialogue with a few others. Perhaps one could think of it as a soft(ened) or smooth(ed out) American Primitive Guitar, as the dissonance of that earlier genre is gone.
I think what makes Ackerman's music so intriguing is the melancholic edge to it, as its soft sounds and gentle beauty hint at a sadness, one that perhaps emerges out of the calmness the songs produce. Take "Lion's In The Sky," the album's fourth song. As he writes in the liner notes about it, "The apostrophe is intentional. This peace was written to convey the feelings of separation and missing someone." Not exactly the feel-good vibes one associates with the New Age. Sonically, that sense of distance and heartbreak is conveyed beautifully over the course of the song's six and three quarter minutes, as Ackerman's playing grows reticent and sparse at times, trying to find the right words to span the gap and connect. When the sharp notes of Philip Aaberg's piano ring out for the first time nearly 5 minutes in, it's almost jolting; they are just as sparse and searching as the guitar, reaching out to acknowledge the distance, hoping that is enough. It simultaneously feels heartbreaking and hopeful, an acknowledgement of the world that separates us and that drive in us to bridge it. Wonderful.
It stands in contrast to the record's second song, "A Child's Song," which Ackerman tells us was "meant to be a guitar lullaby until my friend Samite was inspired to write his part. I can't imagine the piece as a solo any longer, a lullaby needs a human voice singing about comfort and protection." Ackerman plays a parlor guitar on this track, a smaller one that was popular in the late 19th Century, which gives the song this nasally or twangy sound that makes me think of someone jamming at home or on the front porch. Ackerman mixes sharp, clear, picked notes with warm, resonant chords. Halfway through, Samite, a Ugandan flautist and percussionist, begins to sing and immediately you agree with Ackerman's notion that a lullaby needs a human voice. Samite's voice is everything, a gentle falsetto that feels dream-like, like an ethereal voice that speaks to us as we sleep. I have no idea what he is singing, but all I know is that I want him to sing to me every night for the rest of my life. Finally, check out Ackerman's ode to "warm nights in New Orleans" on "Pontchartrain," where looping bass and guitar notes provide the backdrop for Paul McCandless' smooth as hell English horn cries.
A final thought: I am embarrassed that it took this song to consider the concept of the lullaby, perhaps the first piece of music any of us hear, one devoted to soothing and helping children fall asleep. In thinking of the lullaby and this album, I feel like I have a better handle on what we are highlighting here at Pound for Pound. I want to propose them as important examples of a strain of ambient music, one that creates sonic spaces of comfort, protection and rest. In an age of anxiety, precariousness and insomnia, it becomes an increasingly urgent and radical sound in my opinion; to create spaces of respite, where one can get a good night's sleep, connect and listen to others, relax, and most importantly dream, free from worries and insecurity. This strain unites music like the ambient techno of the chill-out room, the New Age and its recent return, nature field recordings, lowercase music, smooth jazz, soft rock and so much of what we seek out these days. I think it explains or connects some of the recent music we have been posting, like A Forest Moon, Ashan, Ackerman, Epoch Tapes, which all look inward to my ears, suggesting home and building spaces of comfort and safety. We don't have a name for this strain yet, but it will come in due time. In the meantime, expect many more examples from past and present, as well as a new layout potentially.