By JENNIFER KELLY
Sir Richard Bishop has a better life than you. Exhibit A, last year he was wandering around the back streets of Geneva, Switzerland and sauntered into a guitar shop. Upon his asking for a small, travel-sized guitar, the salesman eventually pulled out a beautiful antique guitar, made somewhere around 1890, that produced so lovely a tone that Bishop sat for half an hour playing before asking how much it cost.
It cost too much. He left. He came back. He left again. He returned and bought the beautiful little guitar and took it with him to Tangiers. (See, better than your life, right?)
There, in Tangiers, he played a gig and stayed for a week, additionally recording a collection of songs in a rooftop room lined with ancient tiles, all alone with the new guitar, dipping into a flamenco, Arabic music, blues, raga and folk, wherever the night air blew him. The sound of the guitar, the sound of the room, the sound of Bishop himself freed from all outside influences and pressures, is simply phenomenal.
Sir Richard Bishop has made many wonderful guitar records, but his new Tangiers Sessions, just released by Drag City, is possibly the most limpidly beautiful of all.
“Frontier,” the opener, has a languid flamenco feel, its sudden flourishes and rapid-fire fills punctuating rounded, resonant melodic lines. The sharpness of finger on string is just audible in the high notes, the low ones spread in viscous pools of sensation. There are baroque, intricate twists and turns in the melody, and a bit of spaghetti Western swagger near the end. “International Zone” feels more influenced by its surroundings, with a low-pitched, percussive rush powering its Arab-flavored urgency. Strong rhythms imply dance in this one. Bishop’s fingers patter out a cadence on strings and guitar body that is very like a drum beat.
“Safe House,” too, is wonderfully propulsive and fiery, its notes coming faster, shorter and drier, arriving in swarms and pulling up short in clamped silence at the end of melodic phrases. “Hadija” pulls back into melancholic meditation, a clear liquid interval where the warmth of the air seems to surround and reflect the notes. “Let It Come Down,” later, eases into serenity, the most purely folk-centric of the bunch, with line-finishing tones that hang in the air for sunny eternities.
You almost can’t grudge Bishop for his globe-hopping, 9-5 shirking, guitar-buying existence when it produces music as wonderful as this. Even when it snows two feet and you spend the whole day digging out so you can work your lousy job, and you hate him all over again, you put the record on, and all is forgiven.