Chicago-based guitarist Eli Winter, who is still in college, delivers Unbecoming, is first album as a leader and second overall. and one that explores many aspects of instrumental guitar from acoustic to electric and even baritone electric. On two of the three tracks (yes, these are lengthy ones) Winter plays unaccompanied. Yet, on the album centerpiece, “Maroon,” Winter adds Tyler Damon (drums), Sam Wagster (pedal steel), and Cameron Knowler (nylon string guitar). They are three related but different sounding pieces too.
At twenty-three, the Chicago musician and one who is studying creative writing at the University of Chicago did author a previous album, recorded in Houston, The Time To Come, which explored the difficulties of coping with grief and Hurricane Harvey with conceived melodic solo instrumentals belying his age. Unbecoming, his virtuosic second album, is bolder, uncompromising yet accessible, showcasing ambitious, spacious compositions and a heightened command of the guitar.
The album opens with the epic solo piece on acoustic, clocking in at nearly twenty-three-minutes. “Either I Would Become Ash,” winds through beautiful, robust passages, dense cacophony and insistent silence, calling to mind inspirations Jack Rose, Daniel Bachman and Pauline Oliveros. The song takes its name from an essay in which the late poet and critic Tory Dent notes her surprise at having lived with AIDS for a decade while remaining “no closer to cured”: “Either I would become ash or I would survive fully, completely, resuming all the dreams and potentials I assumed myself capable of experiencing before I tested.” The song suggests the difficulty of resolving such tensions and a way through them, speaking to the power of vulnerability and the significance of shared struggle apropos for our own struggle through this unrelenting pandemic.
Lead single “Maroon,” is a jolting mood shift as a joyous song marking Winter’s first time leading a band. “Maroon” is the shortest and most straightforward track on the record – rife with infectious hooks. Like “Dark Light” – a spare, rich exploration of space and feedback played on the electric baritone, sourced from a concert recording – “Maroon” imparts the importance of fostering communities on scales large and small. Winter’s is not the vintage kind of guitar associated with John Fahey or the slide style of Leo Kottke. His is more contemporary, as in the vein of the guitarists cited above in the third paragraph but old school types will hear the echoes of Fahey and Kottke in places, albeit faintly. Unbecoming showcases Winter’s talents not only as a guitarist but as a composer who will continue to have plenty to say as his future seems astoundingly bright based on this effort.
- Jim Hynes