There is something odd about the fact that Scott Tuma remains a relative obscurity. How much of this is wilful is difficult to gauge, but the fact that cursory searches reveal a smattering of reviews and little else induces a strange kind of disconnect. Where are all the plaudits? Is it a given that his back catalogue stretches like a roof of fretted fire over the mulch of folk and drone music that has dominated the US underground for the last 10 years or so? I wonder if it’s precisely this meta-quality that grants him a kind of invisibility – so prevalent and ubiquitous is he, that the tendency is to look straight through him.
As far back as Souled American, the Chicago ur-alt country band with whom he played guitar from the late 80s to mid 90s, Tuma was always looking to explore beyond the boundaries of a received sound. Souled American were a brew of the traditional, the psychedelic and plain odd– stretching what were ostensibly country and bluegrass songs by slowing the pace to a crawl and making the familiar seem eldritch and uncanny. Along with the unearthly twin vocals of Joe Adducci and Chris Grigoroff, Tuma’s guitar playing was central to this subtle shifting of the ground, and after he left to concentrate on his own work he continued on this path upwards and away from the traditional – all the while keeping it as a guide, a granular part of his voyages.
All of Tuma’s five solo records, and his various collaborations with Boxhead Ensemble, Mike Weis and Good Stuff House (also featuring Weis), are touched by this exploratory, questing zeal and also by a sense of grace and timelessness. The one obvious touchstone might be John Fahey, but while Tuma’s work does have a similar sense of scope it doesn’t necessarily have the structural dread and otherness that seems to haunt all of Fahey’s recordings – there is uneasiness, but it’s contained, part of a wider sweep of sound, somewhere between quiescence and melancholy. These distinct facets of sound and purpose came together to startling effect on Not for Nobody Tuma’s 3rd solo album following on from Hard Again (named after the Muddy Waters record) and The River 1234.
Not For Nobody was first released in 2008 on Digitalis, and history has proved it has been something of a transition album for Tuma. It signalled a slight shift in emphasis from long thematic pieces to shorter impressionistic vignettes, and also included what could be seen as a move towards a more domesticsound, with odd production techniques that more readily incorporated Tuma’s immediate surroundings. The album begins with what is to date, the only recording of Tuma’s voice that I’m aware of – and it’s treated until it’s virtually unrecognisable, a thin high keening sound that could be mourning but comes on more like a frazzled lullaby. This kind of tone that pervades the rest of the album, with the soothing lilt of his guitar and banjo figures, and the trademark bed of warm organ and harmonium drones occasionally punctured by uncanny intrusions: what sounds like a strangled cry on ‘Loversrock 1′, the barely-there squees on ‘Eloper’. What all this newly domesticated closeness of sound does is to further obscure the fact that with Tuma there is always the overarching sense that you’re insidethe great hall of a tradition. Tracks like ‘Tiktaalik’ and ‘Rakes’, so simple and so utterly beautiful, sound like disinterred folk songs, ancient and woody: the former (named after an extinct genus of lobe-finned fish) is a diptych of interlocking guitar figures so wide and so plangent as to almost possess its own architecture; the latter, as close as the album comes to containing a song, seems to incorporate a whole host of traditionals. With the more incidental tracks, such as ‘Moccasoclea’ and ‘Newjoy’ there is often the feeling of voyeurism, the closeness of watching someone record, certainly, but also seeing the figures and melodies like chainlinks into an obscured past.
Tuma was to follow on this increasingly abstract path with Dandelion, which further accentuated this shift to a more domestic sound, with many more unsettling moments of intrusion. It was a fascinating record, but Not For Nobody somehow had the perfect balance. This new vinyl edition on Immune, with its exquisite artwork by Chris Koelle, is what the album deserves.