Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Lars Haugen - Six Strings and The Truth
Six Strings and The Truth is the rarest of records, a guitar based instrumental album that doesn't have you running away in tedious boredom at any point. In fact, it makes you rather glad that his brother Aslag, the lead singer of Lars's day job of the last twenty years, Norway's country rock legends Hellbillies, chose to take some time off.
Hellbillies. Why haven't we heard of them? Well, the main reason is that the fellas sing in the dialect of the Hallingdal region of their home in Norway. Funnily enough, if you take one listen (and you will) to any song by Hellbillies, I believe you'll know what the song is about, the band being just that good at conveying emotions, and meanings via melody. They put me in mind of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, or maybe The Band - they are that good. They suffer no comparisons - I'm guessing they are The Eagles of Norway. Aslag Haugen has a beautiful and telling voice, and Lars is as a good a right hand man/guitar star as has ever picked up the instrument. Don't listen to me though, go straight to YouTube and fire up any Hellbillies track and you'll be a convert, a fan.
Filled with somewhat familiar tones, and sounds, Lars's first outing as a solo act will have you reigned in with a great combination of familiarity and uniqueness. Kind of like reminiscing with a stranger. Haugen plays with a wonderfully relaxed passion that keeps you on the edge of your seat without hearing the anxiety that most instrumental guitarists display. He's not saying, "Please love me," but rather, "Don't you love this?"
Before I get into the tracks I have to mention some gear issues. Haugen came to my attention this summer through connections with two of the absolute best instrument builders in the world. Dan Boul whose 65 Amps power Lars's tones, and Michael DeTemple,and his amazing guitars, which I believe are also utilized. You'll see 65 Amps displayed proudly in Hellbillies newest videos such as Denne Red. I'm not certain which guitars, and other instruments Lars is playing here, but he seemingly has a penchant for Paul Reed Smiths, Les Pauls, and other classic guitar styles. His tones are immaculate, and always very well chosen. He covers a tremendous amount of territory across the record, stylistically speaking, and always chooses the appropriate tones, avoiding another misstep that entraps so many instrumental guitar records.
A Walk in the Park starts things off, and it moves at a brisk pace that draws you in, and will have you toe tapping and wishing that Eric Johnson's records were this song oriented. Eric is brilliant, we all know that, but he often loses listens with his sheer technicality and sophistry. This is more accessible, and I use Mr. Johnson as a point of reference, not in any disparaging sense. The rhythm section percolates solidly behind Haugen as he calmly takes us on a brilliant tour of his chops, and musicality. If there were still real rock radio, this would be this year's guitar instrumental hit single. He plays so damned well that you almost don't notice his dizzying technical skills - the ending will have every guitar player scrambling to the woodshed. It is an instant classic.
Urban Twang retraces some steps, being the title track to Hellbillies 2001 album. I initially wondered why Haugen had chosen to go back over the past, but quickly realized that a decade later, he has taken the song to a new level of emotional immediacy. Its poignant and bittersweet melody evokes an instant memory of a love, perhaps lost, and not soon to return. There is a militaristic, and funereal bent that brings to mind a million lost soldiers and their loved ones. That is certainly just my take on the beautiful melody, but is that not the point of a piece of instrumental music, to take the listener on an emotional journey? Too many musicians have forgotten this in the race for chops supremacy, but Haugen reminds me that music is made to move the listener. His notes and melodies pop out so sweetly that a tear comes to my eye. Midway through the tune the mood changes to a more uplifting and positive forward movement, maybe remembering the good times of the past before he returns to state his eloquent case again at the end. Lars puts on a twang bar display on this one that is on par with Jeff Beck's, and I don't mention this cavalierly or casually, but with studied respect, and awe. This is magisterially majestic - a masterpiece.
If an American guitarist had recorded the title track, Six Strings and The Truth may have been called maybe Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust. This hard charging number gets to the goal line after pulling out every trick in the coach's repertoire. Telecaster masters such as Bill Kirchen, and Redd Volkaert come to mind, as Haugen pays tribute to the art of American roots guitar playing, before going into a bolero of jazz/rock pop - how's that for genre bending? Well, that's as best as I can describe it using the tools at my disposal. It has great chops, great tones, and stunning musicality. He even conjures a little early Rush in towards the end before driving out of town in his hot rod Lincoln. Another mind-bender.
Haugen pulls out the acoustic weaponry for All Alone, and again he has mastered the ground he chooses to cover. This tune is wistful, and dreamy. Filled with great imagery, and melodic invention, he treads carefully between composer, and guitar star. Technical wizardry is on display in spades, but never at the expense of the song.
Speaking of songs, Landscapes comes in sounding the most of any track here like his band Hellbillies. I can literally imagine what brother Aslag would be singing over this Haugen composition. Hellbillies tunes are always melodic, and well thought out, and this is no different save for Lars filling more space with his tasteful, and lyrical chops.
Heavy tremolo is saved for the end, and I'm guessing it is born of a 65 Amp, as Lars Harvaard Haugen rings out his first full length solo album with another example of why I feel he is one of the best guitar players most of us have not previously heard of. Beautiful motifs jump in an out of this one, at a stunning rate, and it is evident that in the twenty years that Hellbillies have been producing hits in their native Norway, Mr. Haugen was thinking about maybe making himself a record.
So there it is. This is going to be a very hard record to beat for 2011, whether instrumental or vocal. I am rather given to raving about what I like, and I make no apologies. I am not a critic - I am a fan, and a friend. I do not write about that that I do not love, but damn, I do love this record and would all but beg you to buy a copy. Not for Lars, not for me, but rather for you. You deserve to hear music this good.
I will try to follow this up with an article on the gear Lars used for the record, and his thoughts on its making, but I feel a certain sense of urgency in getting the word out about this, the first great record I have heard in 2011.
Great thanks, and congratulations to Lars Harvaard Haugen,