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Jim Campilongo: A Combustible Instrumental

On paper, at least, the genre of guitar-focused instrumental albums seems to imply the 1980s heyday of "shred": the guitarist as gladiator, obscured by bad L.A. fashion and outsize ego, making music that's only interesting to those attempting to play it themselves.

In reality, there's been loads of stylish, wordless American music with a fetish for the electric guitar: the surf combos, Freddie King's instrumental sides and Ry Cooder qualify, as does the seminal work of players associated exclusively with the Fender Telecaster (say, Roy Buchanan's blues and Danny Gatton's "redneck jazz"). The Telecaster's influence spreads across Americana — it is, inarguably, country music's foremost six-string — but its functionality, combined with some design quirks and a high potential for customization, has rendered the instrument a school unto itself.

Jim Campilongo, a guitarist from San Francisco now based in New York, offers a distinctive, postmodern take on Telecaster music. He's mastered many of the idiomatic techniques and tones that define the style — the swells in volume, the tautly plucked pick-and-fingers licks and the reverb-heavy, trebly timbre known as "twang" — even if his sound tends to be less piercing, with more bottom end.

But Campilongo, who also plays with Norah Jones in The Little Willies, has an artier edge. On his new album, Orange, he crafts tumbleweed soundscapes in the manner of Cooder, Bill Frisell or Friends of Dean Martinez; taps vocalist Leah Siegel for dirge-like covers of the Stones and the Stooges; and infuses "When You Wish Upon a Star" with spooky nostalgia. There's a sense of economy about his playing that forces listeners to savor the gymnastics, and he keeps sharp company: Orange was produced by Anton Fier, a drummer with heavy downtown credibility, and features bassist Stephan Crump, who topped jazz polls in 2009 as part of pianist Vijay Iyer's game-changing trio.

"Backburner," Orange's lead-off track, bends toward the artist's guitar-shop demeanor. Pretty much everything you'd want in a rock 'n' roll instrumental is here: a terrific groove, trick-filled riffs and solos, and a point of combustion in which Campilongo thrashes and burns in a way that argues he paid attention to punk rock. (Crump's opening arco screech foreshadows the tumult.) It's all fabulously entertaining, even if you wouldn't know what to do with Campilongo's signature Fender Custom Shop guitar.

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Evan Haga
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