Alexander is quite an impressive achievement.
Alexander is more of a disguise than a name. The “Alexander” of the title is David Shapiro, a Connecticut native who had a few cassette releases and a 12-inch out before releasing this, his first full-length album of compositions. Shapiro’s influences seem fairly obvious on the surface; it’s hard to do finger-picked acoustic compositions and not draw comparisons to Fahey, Kottke, et. al. Yet Shapiro’s work never seems so rooted in the past in the way that those early geniuses often were. If anything, Alexander is an attempt to modernize the finger-picking style, to bring this still slightly underappreciated method of performing to an audience with contemporary taste.
Instrumental records tend to have a sense of mystery about them, however unintentional that may be. Without vocals or lyrics as a guiding path, one has to dig deeper and ruminate longer on what the artist is trying to convey. Alexander obscures things even further with how it is presented: save for “Catfish Blues”–an intricate, swirling reimagining of a 12-bar-blues–each song has a Roman numeral assigned to it. The significance of these titles is a mystery, and there may be no significance at all. Regardless, this does give Alexander the feel of being on a journey. Each track feels like another chapter, a gradual step into a long lost world. The slow, tentative chords of “I” serve as those first small steps, only to give way into the frantic picking of “II” and the welcoming, ambling arpeggios of “III,” as Alexander frames its strange new world.
However, Alexander is not the sort of album filled with fingerpicking fireworks. The sort of rapid-picking style that most associate with these sorts of albums is only really present on “II.” For the rest of the album, Shapiro takes things easy, teasing melodies out slowly and building them up note by note. Alexander is also, thankfully, a no-frills affair. There’s barely anything in terms of reverb or any effects; each note sounds clean and delicately picked. The later tracks in particular convey a notable sense of melancholy. They’re not miserable so much as they find a sense of beauty in sadness. There’s a feeling of nostalgia for a life that has long since passed, and it’s done with a remarkable amount of depth considering that Shapiro is only 27 years old. At its best, Alexander displays a maturity beyond the years of its composer, which is a rare find in music these days.
Alexander isn’t exactly a revolutionary album in the American primitive style, though some new paths may have been illuminated. Yet, it succeeds in standing away from the long shadow cast by Shapiro’s predecessors. This is a fascinating listen, the sort of album that begs for one to get lost within. As far as debut albums go, Alexander is quite an impressive achievement; it demonstrates a restraint and maturity that could shape Shapiro into a truly great composer in the years to come.