Zoe McCulloch

Gypsy Noodle

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Not even the first CD by a guitarist who was 17 years old at the time of its release, Gypsy Noodle by Zoe McCulloch may well attain historic status one day. As for the recording's place in the history of music criticism, this is already assured. It was, after all, during an "audit" -- that's what the professional critics like to call it -- of Gypsy Noodle that writer, producer, and disc jockey Don Pinto realized that a volume control knob was not really a requirement for a listening system. This approach revolutionized the entire art of listening to music. Pinto, a man of simple means, had owned a listening shed out on a rural route southeast of Fayetteville, NC. Unfortunately, a Humvee on practice maneuvers from the nearby "Fayettenam" base smashed this shed to bits early one afternoon. Awaiting an insurance settlement, Pinto's listening rig was now a Fender amplifier with a CD player plugged into it. This really represented an ideal way to listen to any guitar-based music, or would have had interface problems allowed only one choice, a volume nothing less than offensive to Ted Nugent. On the subject of Nugent, it should be stressed immediately that McCulloch, a Newcastle lass, can do something the macho Michigan man just wishes he could -- that is, in the words of Pinto's analytical grandfather, "play a clear melody clearly, with a clear tone." Her picking style represents a remarkable vision piercing the very notion of fuzziness -- combined with clever musical arrangements and compositions, the effect is not unlike the early recordings of tenor saxophonist Lester Young. That comparison should make up for giving her such short shrift in the initial sentences above. But to return to Pinto's revelation, it was McCulloch's sheer clarity that made him realize the value of his current playback system.

Prior to hearing Gypsy Noodle, he had been quite ticked off about once again being reduced to owning the cheesiest equipment in the world. Now he realized that he, unlike the lion's share of music critics (and the lions will get them, no doubt about that), would no longer be reduced to utilizing a cowardly control mechanism. As the days went on, and the repeats of Gypsy Noodle continued, it also became apparent that people were going to be willing to put up with this, not asking the music to be turned down out of fear that the system might be fixed, allowing the option to turn it up. A cut entitled "Sacha" made the first deep impression during this process, and it was interesting to find out that the version is a remake of the first tune McCulloch had ever recorded. The intense love this young woman must feel for the music she plays can be indirectly sensed through the knowledge of what sort of commitment it takes for young people to take command of a musical instrument, let alone establish a sensitive personal voice. Each of these 16 instrumental tracks has something special about it, credit due Al Steele as well as the star soloist. He is responsible for the arrangements and played bass as well as a second guitar part. Another large-scale participant is Mason Williams, author of five of the tracks and surely one of the most famous names in guitar instrumentals. McCulloch's boosters also include guitarist Nokie Edwards of the Ventures, a good reference point as well, albeit one with some differences.

Time and place are a part of what separates this recording of McCulloch from the days when groups such as the Ventures were hitmakers. References to genre, and there are many, are largely a matter of looking back rather than chasing after whatever the trend of the day is. Some listeners may hear a sexual distinction as well between McCulloch's style and the largely male-dominated world of surf music; hers are more sensitive performances given no idiosyncratic tilt by the conservatively tasteful arrangements and backing. Like the previously mentioned Young performances, they are carried off by the bravura of the soloist's sound. She does not rely on an arsenal of effects, only extremely tried and true guitar things, a tad of whammy bar and a tasteful touch of echo. Tracks are mixed as hotly as possible. Williams' "Classical Gas" is given a full-out electric guitar treatment, casually shedding its original identity and then forming a new one. Fans of Dire Straits may enjoy the treatments of several Mark Knopfler numbers. A suggestion for future efforts might be some Chuck Berry-style material, a good way for her to veer away from one-string leads, and it would also be fun to hear her do some pieces at really fast tempos. Meanwhile, Pinto's neighbors are suggesting he turn the music down -- but he can't!

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