TEXAN solo guitar practitioner and melodicist Cameron Knowler – whose lovely, exploratory album with Eli Winter, Anticipation, we fully embraced in early March – is unveiling his very first solo album with American Dreams this coming week.
A lifelong Westerner and recent Los Angeles transplant, Knowler spent his childhood in Yuma, Arizona and Houston, Texas, where much of his learning was self-directed,following his whims, living; he would be off riding dirt bikes in the desert, writing poetry; even visiting antique stores with his mother, who sold vintage glass beads.
And so life unfolded, perhaps unremarkable, a good life though; until, at age 17, he had a paradigm shift. A bluegrass concert changed his life pretty much overnight, and he began practicing guitar for up to 16 hours a day, fully focused, tuned in.
And if you’ve been lucky enough to see him play, or know that album with his friend Eli Winter, you’ll know he seems to have it in his blood, the music; so free, intuitive, of him are the songs. You suspect that he had he not gone to that late-teenage bluegrass concert, the music would’ve come calling him to his true vocation by now, somehow.
Cameron says of the album and its absolute rootedness in an American West perhaps, to use the psychogeographer Iain Sinclair’s phrase, overimagined; that is, gelled as a certain cluster of tropes and images which it is hard to burrow beyond. He says: “Despite the fact that the lightheartedness of youth lifts and the problematic components of the West reveal themselves over time, there are still ways of harnessing the space to richly creative ends.”
The album comes packaged with an original portrait painting by Brighton artist Katy Riddell; Cameron is depicted reclined, guitar in hand, natch; seeming to either shield his eyes from the sun or be momentarily overcome.
“Her illustrative style,” says Cameron, “calls to mind a certain academic reserve, which I myself feel having grieved the place of my upbringing through my craft.
“Whereas I was once wishing to get out, I am now wishing to re-enter in some ways. Both are futile pursuits.”
It’s a rapprochement of sorts, then, a return of Saturn; a homecoming to a hearthside that’s forever vanished.
Album opener “I’m an Old Cowhand,” an old song about an inept cowboy who drives a Ford V8, is dense, striking, beckon you across to sit with it awhile and watch the dusk gather; its opening full of classical Spanish glissando, before roaming off into a more traditionally, almost Alan Lomax essaying of sweet porchside yearning, it’s only as “Sonora Road” breaks out in a feast-day rag, so tonally bright and tap-dance accompanied, that you awake from a more muted reverie of the first track, which really does feel, hell, even smell of a very different America, those early recording studios serving local markets across the land.
“Supertone Biome” is a dampened whisper of neo-minimalism, which seems to play out in inky shadows, and is soon eclipsed by the fluid meander of “Done Gone”, a masterclass of melodic folk runs, ripe with the landscape of the country dreaming under blue skies. “Don Bishop A” – to me, that’s a very John Fahey kinda title – is a placid, even sad piece, with deep roots in the tradition and delicious with the up-close squeak of a guitar recorded intimately; you can almost picture begrimed faces nodding in silent accordance around a hearth, all lost in their particular memory.
Blink and you’ll miss the soft, shadow-cast electric fragment “Atelier de Stein”, music for an experimental film – it would play excellently in something with the sort of dreamworld aesthetic of Maya Deren’s Meshes Of The Afternoon – and bookends another brief and introspective piece, “Cindy Cindy”.
“Cat Spring” is the solid centre of the album and reels out at its leisure for six minutes or more, and sees a first appearance of the banjo, Cameron in stoutly tuneful conversation with himself as he’s also in the supporting role on the guitar. At six minutes, you can fall into that particular verdant gulch both easily and happily. Let Cameron be your contemplative guide in a slow glide that cycles but never repeats, spinning curlicues of harmony away from the main theme. As it progresses into a second iteration, Cameron gets that dizzyingly fluid way he has with a riff going again, his fingers as precise as they must be optically blurry, shapes and runs cresting and falling away.
“Motoring Addiction” is another of the electric vignettes that leaven the album; and boy oh boy, is it ever pregnant with lone stat twang; lighting up time at a strip town framed by mountains, maybe a welcome dusk rain. It fades for the single preceding the album, “Puerto Suelo”; which is, Cameron says, a tune about falling in love with something bigger than yourself; stylistically, it aims to (and bullseyes) a braiding of the wellspring pastoralism of George Cromarty and a dustier, western noir; which it plays out with a parched and atmospheric mood that you can wend into and curl up inside.
An absolute lover of the nuance of the individual guitar, as you’d expect, Cameron composed and then recorded “Puerto Suelo” with a specific pair of guitars in mind: a 1939 Supertone all-birch parlour guitar and a late-’60s Teisco “tulip” model, each panned 30% on either side. Each guitar mimics the other rather than spiralling out in harmonic empathy. Kitchen utensil and banjo percussion completes the deliciously homespun, cinematic vibe.
“Second Train to Alamogordo” – like the Hemingway-attributed six-word short, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”, isn’t there a whole story in there? The second train. The first, missed, a final plea maybe. All kinds of stories suggest themselves in that. As someone once said, it’s about the space between the notes; as someone else said, you see a lot of things out in the desert; hear a lot of things, too. All of which inform a beautiful electric paean that I could listen to a whole album of. “Lone Prairie” marches in atmospheric pairing, evoking those wide spaces and big skies in frontiersman banjo.
“Lena’s Spanish Fandango” is far more plaintive than the title may evidence, is lent a sadness with the little touches of quite a churchy organ; that old-time religion. A thoughtful and emotional two minutes in waltz time, it remains now only for the closer “Kuyina”, derived we’re told, from a tune by Congolese accordionist Camille Feruzi and the late, legendary fiddler Jon Bekoff, who died moments after playing the song in his backyard. Cameron’s arrangement pays tribute to his late mother, is a gentle caress with that striking, plummeting bent note 18 seconds in such a masterful, significant touch.
Cameron’s debut set is nothing if not ambitious; it sets out to define his place, bound his settlement with his desert youth and the music he lives within and draws on. His knowledge and understanding of all these traditions is preternatural, his perception of the nuances of it far beyond his years. And it’s that core body in correspondence with the fragmentary, amplified vignettes that lend the record an extra sparkle; I am so this, he seems to say, and yet I am also wholly, wholly of this, too. It would be amazing to see him both ride off into an investigation of that more electric, soundtracky thing, and to see if he decides to blur and meld the two further; then again, his investigation of the bluegrass tradition is more than a little fine and adept, too, isn’t it? So many possibilities.
Places Of Consequence is a new music that presents as old as the hills, rooted and finding new atmospheric horizons.
Cameron Knowler’s Places Of Consequence will be released by American Dreams on July 16th digitally, on limited CD, on trad black and mail-order exclusive yellow vinyl, and bundled with an accompanying children’s book; go browse your preferred options and place your order over at Bandcamp.