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Ecstatic Racquet (No Drums Records)

This latest incarnation for Darren Cross, previously of electro-pop makers Gerling, alt,country duo Jep & Dep, and recordings under his own name traversing electronics, rock(ish) moves and country-folk, finds him a solo guitarist in the tradition of, if not necessarily the complexity and width of, the holy trinity of Fahey, Redbourn and Jansch, and recent hero of the scene, Ryley Walker.

It may be his most consistently interesting and successful iteration. At least to these ears which have remained more sceptical than convinced before.

Bare of vocals, bar a couple of uses of sampled speaking voices (there’s also occasional sampled sounds, including insects and a plane), these pieces feature a warmly miked guitar which is centred in attention, but not intensely so. The longest tracks are around four and a half minutes, but nine of the 14 are under – sometimes well under – three minutes, meaning in the main these are beginnings and openings, rather than deep explorations.

It opens with a couple of tracks where Cross’ fingers pick gently and lightly, giving us a mild scene-setting introduction while presaging something tougher in the future (Presslufthammer Catfight and First Itch Highly Strung), which leans towards a Midwest country tone, before darkening slightly in a kind of cold desert air setting and then, in Drugged Up Madonna, tightening the tension.

It isn’t until nearly halfway through the album, with Bad Mood Dude With Twilight Shirt (yes, the titles are … making the most of not having to make sense with lyrics), that the tone shifts from American to something like dark English, impressions of more forest than desert, and of discomfort rather than danger within the tempo shift.

But save for Light Autumn Winds later in the album, a track which leans into a light chill, and Zumblebee, which closes the set with a mid-song burst of more pressing energy, it’s more a diversion than a new route: Tuesday Morning, Thursday Night bringing matters back towards a lower blue hills of Kentucky feel, Gambetta Or Neuokolln, letting the warm, still air settle around Cross, and We Can’t Go On Destroying Each Other (the title taken from one of those vocal samples) doing a kind of Texas rumination.

Ecstatic Racquet is a charming listen, an attractive 40 minutes, but also an unfinished, or maybe more accurately under-explored, direction. Too many tracks open a space for thought but end with Cross, and us, standing on the edge of the space wondering what else might be.

He should go again, and next time go longer. Go deeper.

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