One of these days, I’ll have an intern go down to Bull Moose and take an inventory: Just what percentage of albums feature a guitar on the cover? It’s a staple of the singer/songwriter design handbook. “If possible,” reads section 16, paragraph 2, “get somebody hugging the guitar on the front. If no such photo is available, have an artist draw the guitar so that it appears like a toy.”
Mike Golay, a relatively new Portland-area resident from New York, has followed the letter of this handbook closely. Despite appearances, however, he’s not really what I’d call a singer/songwriter, in the end (unlike, say, Carll Wilkinson, who went with the toy guitar drawing with his Pomegranate from early 2005, or Jud Caswell, who hugged a guitar while being reflected in salt water on the cover of 2004’s Lost & Found).
Christ, Golay doesn’t even sing.
For some reason, I didn’t see that coming. After watching him try single-handedly to keep Youngo’s open over in Bramhall Square, I had him pegged as your standard coffee-shop balladeer. Instead, he’s a virtuoso-level fingerstyle guitarist, and his Across the Bridge is a robust 18 songs’ worth of some serious playing. How serious? On four of the songs he’s paired with Al Petteway, a fingerstyle legend who with Ed Gerhard and others won a 2005 Grammy for the Henry Mancini fingerstyle tribute Pink Guitar.
Okay, so on two of those tracks, including the opener, “Somewhere I Have Never Traveled,” Petteway is actually doing some kind of percussion thing with the body of his guitar (Golay, in one of many tongue-in-cheek nods in the liner notes, refers to it as “guitdrum”). But on “Welcome to Funkstown,” one of the few toe-tappable pieces here — with a solid low-end, and an almost wicka-wicka vibe from another accompanying guitarist, Alphonso Brown — Petteway contributes to the best song on the album. At about 1:40, Golay (I’m assuming) rips a scale going up that’s really hot, and then gives a bluesy solo some room to breathe. Golay here seems to be reveling in not being the only one playing, which is understandable. This whole solo fingerstyle guitar thing must be fairly exhausting, worse maybe than singing.
It can certainly be exhausting to listen to. What starts out as soothing, quiet guitar expertly picked, with bass lines supported by high-end runs, by the end of the hour of songs becomes a chore when you’re listening on the headphones. I became anxious, like I just ate a candy bar and then had to sit still for a while. All those notes, all the time, for a solid hour straight. A million paper cuts.
Well, it’s not that bad, obviously. It’s great for a quiet dinner and drinks, or for background music when you’re reading, but it just can’t quite be the center of attention for its entirely. If this were cut in half? The nine standouts? Then I think it’s a powerhouse and enviable display.