by Nick DeRiso
You're to be forgiven for expecting this to be a guitar record. First, there's Ned Evett himself -- a master of this specially created fretless version of the instrument. And his producer, gearhead Adrian Belew.
Heck, Evett has toured with Joe Satriani, for chrissakes.
Yet here, on Evett's sixth solo release, there are precious little brain-pretzelling solos. It's not that kind of record. Instead, Evett -- winner, you're reminded, of the 2003 North American Rock Guitar competition -- has focused on his songcraft, on his vocals, on telling a story.
The result is a layered, career-redefining success. From the ruckus-raising rockabilly of the opening "Pure Evil," to the shambling groove of "Break My Fall," to the cloud-parting optimism of the title track to the curtain-falling darkness of "Say Goodbye to Both of Us," Evett bravely travels an outlander's trail -- sounding too tough for most country records, too honest for most rock records, and to real for anything in between. He untangles all of these many emotions not with a flurry of guitar brilliance -- though you certainly hear that on Treehouse, if only in short, sharp bursts -- but with a keen eye for details.
Looking at his songs from the inside out, not as vehicles for solos but as stand-alone narratives, has made for a record that can both touch the heart and (when Evett finally does pick up that strangely intriguing fretless instrument) thrill the head. Evett doesn't stand apart from the music, like so many talented instrumentalists. He's not looking for his place to add a flourish, or an incongruent moment of flash. He's allowed himself to become a part of every moment in these songs.
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There's an admirable spaciousness here, absent the string-scorching pyrotechnics. That gives Evett room to play and sing but also for doubt, for arguments to turn into belated revelations, for furious emotion to turn into a tender homecoming.
Of course, all of that is found in the words. The music is another thing, as Evett takes the Americana template on songs like "Why Can't I Believe" -- shotgun-shack twangs? Check. Coffeehouse rhythms? Sure -- and then brilliantly scuffs it up, toward the end, with a stomping, punky clatter. "Nightmare and a Dream Come True," in its initial riff, sounds something like the math-rock that Belew has become famous for a member of King Crimson over the last 30 years -- but then Evett storms off into a rumbling Bo Diddley beat, howling like a rockabilly tomcat.
There's not a whole lot of soloing, but when Evett takes his turn -- as on the horror-show chackle of "Dead on a Saturday Night" -- he plays like a downhill tractor trailer with its brakes burned clean off. There is, for all of his measured songwriting brilliance on Treehouse, a sense of pent-up emotion -- and that gives the album another level of drama. Even on the plucky folk tunes like "Bend Me," his instrumental break sounds like someone who can scarcely sit still. Then there's "Falling In Line," a track that recalls the weird fatalism of the blues in its lyric, but is nothing but rock 'n' roll propulsion in its execution -- right down to the smeared, gurgling noise of Evett's guitar part.
Vital and inventive, this record is too complex to fit into any of the pre-fab slots at the local record shop or on the radio. It's not exactly Americana, not entirely rock, not really a guitar record, and not wholly a singer-songwriter project. And that's exactly what makes Ned Evett's new album so endlessly compelling.
Treehouse, available from Raging Krill Records, features Malcolm Bruce (son of Cream’s Jack Bruce) on bass, Lynn Williams on drums, Belew on piano (as well as second guitar on “Why Can’t I Believe”) and Ed Roth on organ (“Say Goodbye For Both Of Us” and “Just About Over This Time”).
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