Nashville's William Tyler wants his instrumental songs to tell a story or, at the very least, to express some theme or concept that's been weighing on his mind. This is especially true on Impossible Truth, his recently released third LP and his debut for Durham's Merge Records.
Much of the album was inspired by Tyler's reading. While driving across the country in support of his 2010 solo effort, Behold the Spirit, he made his way through Cadillac Desert and The Geography of Nowhere, two volumes that focus on ecological woes. The first analyzes the crisis of diminishing fresh water supplies on the West Coast; the second takes a hard look at Los Angeles' unchecked urban sprawl. At the same time, he was reading Hotel California, a detailed account of the rise and fall of L.A.'s famed '70s music scene. He saw a connection between blindly warm feelings for that unsustainable era of popular sound and the environmental problems being ignored in the same part of the country. Impossible Truth strives to explore the different ways that nostalgia can distract us from obvious truths.
The problem with such concepts is they often don't communicate without explicit explanations. Luckily, Tyler offered plenty during his appearance at The Pinhook Thursday night, interspersing his stunning renditions with self-effacing jokes and detailed accounts of the experiences that shaped his songs, enhancing their already tremendous power.
While "Geography of Nowhere" takes its name from the book aimed at L.A., Tyler explained that the melody was inspired by a train ride through Turkey. As he sat in the diner car, Tyler stared out at a haunted landscape once occupied by Armenians and listened to the one melancholy tune that the bartender played over and over again. The song is his attempt to recreate not just that repeated melody but the mood of the trip—zipping through a landscape with a sorrowful past, but also focused on future destinations. Following his explanation, the song became even more powerful, its darkly repetitious melody straining through murky reverb and distortion. When the tune turned redemptive, so did Tyler's technique, as he slowed down and opted for shimmery effects to highlight the song's soaring middle section.
Indeed, Tyler's stories were a key part of the set. His tale of pausing during a tour to meet his Irish girlfriend's parents enhanced the roaming acoustic picking of "We Can't Go Home Again." His recounting of the formidable ambition and financial failure of the epic Western Heaven's Gate—and how its failing torpedoed directorial freedom in the '80s—crystallized the hollow grandeur encapsulated by the ethereal 12-string gauze spun during "Country of Illusion," its tender pools of reverb refracting Tyler's beautiful tones, creating mirages that were there only for a moment.
As gratifying as Tyler's stories were, his playing is more than capable of speaking for itself. "The World Set Free," Impossible Truth's 10-minute closer, was a wowing display of his instrumental virtuosity and refined compositional approach. He started with warm acoustic picking, looping and layering various patterns before switching to his electric 12-string and escalating the mood until it climaxed in a barrage of fiery distortion. Cooling down, he offered a tender but warped version of the song's opening melody, its essence altered by the powerful forces the apocalypse-evoking song is meant to embody.
All told, Tyler's stop in Durham offered proof of the diversely talented artist he's become—not just as a guitarist, but as a charismatic performer and an ambitious musical mind.
Also worth noting were Tyler's openers: Loamlands, the new band spearheaded by former-Midtown Dickens buds Kym Register and Will Hackney, played their first show in support of the picker, offering a glimpse of what looks to be a promising future. Backed by Megafaun's Brad Cook on bass and Lost in the Trees' Kyle Keegan on drums, the group carved out an appealing and lively folk-rock niche.
While the last two Midtown Dickens records keyed on Megafaun's early weirdness as an influence for their maturing folk, Loamlands are equally comparable to Megafaun's more recent material, subverting quirks in service of songs that are clean and satisfying. The band's meditative songs maintained a purposeful pulse, surging in a way that recalled Register's work with her chooglin' cover band, Creedence Queerwater Revival. The Dickens singer seemed quite comfortable in her role as frontwoman, exposing nuance in her rough but pretty croon that was overshadowed by her old outfit's more collaborative vocal approach. The set also demonstrated the group's delicate side with two emotionally charged duo numbers.