Guitarist Andrew Smiley’s new solo album, Looming as Light Torn, was recorded in 2019, but don’t let that stop you from hearing it as a quarantine record. Like a guitarist working on tunes alone in his practice space while waiting for his bandmates to arrive, the album’s two long tracks sound lonely but also excited to explore ideas at full volume without the weight of collaboration. (Hopefully that independent excitement is how you’ve experienced creating under COVID, but, if it’s all been loneliness, that’s okay too).
Smiley is best known for playing guitar in Little Women, a band that fused the sonics and tactics of jazz with those of the thrashier realms of post-punk. I first encountered the quartet at West Philadelphia’s late lamented Danger Danger Gallery about a decade ago, when they’d been sold to me as the new Ben Greenberg band. That sufficed to get me to the show as a devotee of Zs, which Greenberg was playing in at the time. My disappointment to find Smiley in Greenberg’s place lasted about as long as it took to comprehend that Little Women was one of the best bands I had (and still have) ever seen, and that Smiley’s caustic instrumental voice resembled Greenberg’s, while not replicating it.
Reappraising the Little Women catalog in preparation for this review (and to feel confident standing by the above-stated superlative), I’ve been struck by Smiley’s restraint. When the quartet is in full-throttle thrash, he might let one chord ring out clearly. A fleet run up the fretboard might turn into him maniacally toying with two or three notes. Smiley’s solos — to the extent that word even applies to this sort of music–often focus more on pull-offs, pick scrapes, and decay than on the dense clusters and rabid lines we might associate with avant-jazz guitar.
The next time I became aware of Smiley’s playing was in saxophonist Sam Weinberg’s trio Bloor with Little Women’s drummer Jason Nazary (since re-named Bloar and supplemented by bassist Henry Fraser). On their debut on the ever-essential Astral Spirits Records, Smiley’s balance of noise and space had evolved to incorporate the minimalist spirit of the rhythm guitarist of a funk band, lending unexpected tautness to a disc that listeners might file on their “free jazz blowout” shelf.
Knowing Smiley’s interest in doing more with less in a music that often invites doing more with more with a little more more on the side, it’s not surprising that he would forgo the wide-open possibilities inherent to a solo album. The majority of Looming is comprised of two tracks that together feel like one half-hour-long song of what to my ears sound like prog-influenced melodic and harmonic content. Instead of this complexity being paired with the dense arrangements that typify prog rock, however, Smiley takes us on a tour through a gradually unfolding melody, peppered with semi-improvised asides that are more likely to trouble a few notes in the style of his Little Women “solos” than they are to resemble proggy shredding. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Smiley’s guitar playing is his brilliant use of rubato: speeding up to dig into a chord, slowing down to air out individual notes. An exemplary instance comes a few minutes into “Part 2,” as Smiley’s thrashing comes off like the guitarist of a Dischord Records band channeling the elastic time-feel of free jazz.
And then there’s his voice. The solo predecessor to Looming — 2017’s Dispersal on Astral Spirits — also featured Smiley’s singing, but only in the form of wordlessly holding single notes. Here he’s a real lead singer, with lyrics and all. Though his lack of vocal training shows, he gives his all to the gorgeous, delicate melodies that he’s written. I’ve likened these to prog rock, but they also sound influenced by the melodic concept of another Zs alum, Charlie Looker. In that sense, Looming could be heard as a song by Extra Life (my favorite of Looker’s many post-Zs projects), but broken down, stretched out, and with a charmingly unprofessional lead singer subbing for Looker’s highly trained tenor.
Here again Looming can’t not resemble a quarantine demo put to tape in anticipation of dearly missed bandmates. I suspect our COVID year (and counting) will net us more than a few incomplete creative statements. Aside from the cover of a contemporary indie pop band called Now, Now that serves as a pleasant but unnecessary encore to the album, however, Looming is not that. Its minimal arrangement and stark focus is compelling entirely on its own. It just so happened that it was released into an isolated society where “compelling entirely on its own” can be read as a complement or as a statement of depressed resignation.