Esker is Chicago-based composer/guitarist/producer Bill MacKay's debut album for Drag City. It's his third solo album, but unlike, say, his rootsy 2015 Tompkins Square date Sunrise: Bill MacKay Plays the Songs of John Hulburt, his unmistakable guitar playing is appended -- in a few places -- by piano, percussion, and the sound of the studio itself. It doesn't sound remotely like his band records with Darts & Arrows or Sounds of Now, either. His own description of these ten pieces is "...spirit guitar played in a polyglut of styles that melt together liquidly, like the glass slide figurations throughout the album. A landscape in song, and modern guitar on a personal high." That poetic description is accurate as a summation, but there's a lot going on under the surface. MacKay uses a different playing style in each of these tunes; all are intensely personal, filled with emotion. Opener "Aster" employs a hypnotic rolling piano pattern as glass slide guitars anchor it in blues. The effect is cinematic Americana through a gauzy refracted lens. "Twilight" is a strident fingerpicked acoustic modal number where folk, blues, and country music commingle around a minimal but unmistakable melody. "Candy," also on acoustic, is a short, dazzling Piedmont-style rag-blues. Things get starker and stranger on "Persona," where reverbed, rounded, glass slide guitar sounds are appended by sinister hand-muted fingerpicking and ambient percussion. On "The Hollows," strummed 12-strings are accompanied by a bassline and a fragmentary lyric melody, but it abruptly vanishes inside of a minute. "Wail" is played on strummed and slide electrics with an abundance of reverb. It's the ghost of a church hymn; its circular melody and changes evoke long-ago traces of repentant Sunday mornings after debauched Saturday nights. "Scarlet's Return" is the album's longest track. The relaxed opening features modal patterns on electric and acoustic guitars interlocking and interweaving on a chord pattern amid sonic treatments. Lonesome multi-tracked slide guitars suggest a dominant melody, but just as it seems to arrive, it is absorbed by bass notes, drones, and harmonics. Blues, calling from beyond the margins, inserts itself in an incantatory unfolding. By its conclusion, it's even more mysterious than when it began. This is a fitting close for this moody but moving "spirit guitar" offering. Esker unpacks slowly. While immediately enjoyable, its short playing time initially makes it somewhat of a blur. Repeated listening allows for individual tunes to distinguish themselves in the sequence. That said, this music comes directly from internal imagery and archetypes; it will never fully reveal itself to the listener. That's just as it should be. Just 33 minutes long, Esker is a compelling glimpse of MacKay as a sound painter and spirit explorer.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek