Once upon a time, a band called Mumford and Sons pointed out to a generation of hipsters that the banjo was actually a pretty cool instrument. Of course, their radio-pop take on Americana was tedious from the get-go and really probably just consumed by your mothers, but still—I'd imagine it piqued a few ears all the same. Down the road a tad, super-awful band Judah and the Lion also rocked out with the banjo, but they too insisted on diluting its powers with soulless pop and bafflingly terrible lyrics. And it was tragic.
Enter now banjo wizard Johnny Bell, a self-taught clawhammer aficionado who makes up for a lack of formal training with that magic ingredient that transcends all other ability: really fucking meaning it. Bell told me that, if anything, his goal is to prove that banjo can be taken out of its traditional Appalachian context and provide for progressive compositions. He's been obsessed for years.
Bell still maintains his more prominent position with freak folkers Cloacas, but as a solo artist, he stretches out a bit more into his own thing on the debut self-titled two-song 7-inch from his new recording project, Johnny Bell and the Visitors. The Visitors, as it were, are local trumpeter Ben Montgomery and drummer/audio engineer Will Dyar (formerly of Storming the Beaches with Logos in Hand), and the trio eschews any particular direction for collaborative jamming that leads to fully realized songs.
Think experimental—by which I do not mean weird, at least not in the strictest sense—and altogether more contemplative use of banjo tunes than, oh, say, Earl Scruggs-like chase music; strumming patterns outnumber and outweigh Bell's sojourns into finger-picking elements, and jazz-like horn melodies are layered over everything. Both are decidedly more haunting than anything, though, and Dyar's percussion evokes an almost Middle Eastern feel. Songs, thus, are beautiful movements, making Visitors almost sound like a less precious and non-Morrissey-esque Beirut firmly rooted in the front-and-center banjo.
See, Bell has been squirreling away numerous banjo pieces for himself over the past few years (one might even call him prolific), but never quite knew what to do with many of them outside of a solo show here and there. I've seen him perform solo, too, but those sets generally contained lyrics; Johnny Bell and the Visitors has none, is more contemplative and completely instrumental. Like Bell says, it's "almost like the soundtrack to a movie that hasn't been produced yet."
This might also mean minimalist, like music to set a feeling without having to pay it much attention, but such a term doesn't apply to the the songs themselves. Cover art, however, does approach this aesthetic; it also showcases where it's coming from. Everything was designed by artist Kyle Durrie of Silver City-based letterpress shop, Power & Light Press (which opened a location in Madrid at 2842 Hwy. 14 on Nov. 2). According to Bell, an almost off-the-cuff request he made to Durrie resulted in a design he loved so much that any reservations he had about releasing the album were immediately quashed. Trust me—it's worth staring into the desert scene for a moment or two. It evokes … feelings.
Bell further explains that live performances, if any, will be few and far between in an effort to make such events more special or experiential. He's hinted at possible live improvisation and experimentation between him, Montgomery and Dyar but, for now, it's really just about the recording process and 7-inch release. It can be streamed for free here, by the way, and also bought physically at The Good Stuff (401 W San Francisco St., 795-1939) or from Bell himself if you should run into him.
New songs are in the works, and—assuming the trio evolves and connects more and more—it should be interesting to see what's next. But should you buy this album instead of just streaming it for free? The answer is a resounding yes. Visitors is an interesting direction for Bell to take, and I'd frankly like to see what else he could come up with now that he's embraced a side project. These guys are light years ahead of modern non-traditional banjo tunes—eat that, Marcus Mumford.