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Michael Chapman

Trainsong: Guitar Compositions, 1967-2010

Rating: 3.8/5.0

Label: Tompkins Square

Maybe you remember Michael Chapman as the artist responsible for 1970’s pseudo-cult favorite Fully Qualified Survivor. Maybe you remember him as the link between Bowie and Ronson, or as a late ’60s Cornish folkie troubadour, or even as the greatest guitarist the world has never heard of (a title that CNN once, quite idiotically, bestowed upon Richard Thompson, as if the “British Dylan” has yet to be discovered). Maybe you even know Chapman as a jack-of-all-genres (and master of most) who’s recorded over 30 critically-adored, commercially-ignored records spanning four decades.

Maybe. But chances are you don’t know or remember him at all, and in that you’re not alone. Despite his prolific output over the years (including 15 studio and live albums in the past decade) and moderate success overseas, the acoustic guitar hero from Yorkshire largely remains unknown in America and throughout much of the world – an artistic injustice Tompkins Square attempts to make right with the double-disc Trainsong: Guitar Compositions, 1967-2010, a collection of 26 newly-recorded instrumental versions of songs spanning Chapman’s entire catalog. Whether such a compilation will finally score the musician the commercial appreciation that’s always eluded him is doubtful; regardless, for listeners with the patience and the ear for a six-string maestro on par with Leo Kottke, John Fahey and Davey Graham, you’d be hard-pressed to find a finer display of acoustic craftsmanship than Trainsong.

Unlike those run-of-the-mill ambient compositions flooding the New Age market, a wider vision is immediately apparent on Trainsong. The tonal transitions may be subtle, but they’re nevertheless there; just compare the blues riffs of “New Chord Blues” or “Thank You PK 1944” to the dreamy “Thurston’s House,” the self-described “acoustic guitar disco” composition “Theme from the Movie of the Same Name,” or the wacky, playful “Fahey’s Flag” and you’ll find an artist well-versed in creating numerous sounds and sensations. The mood is overwhelmingly serene throughout, but there are also some fiery moments, such as the waltz-polka hybrid “Wellington the Skellington,” or the ragged, jazzy “Naked Ladies and Electric Ragtime.” Factor in a classy packaging job that includes revelatory and often humorous song-by-song annotations from Chapman (“I took my guitar to a 14th century church and was playing to the sound of the building. They threw me out. I said I was playing for God in case there was one,” he writes of “La Madruagada”), and Trainsong is a nifty collector’s item for Chapman’s meager but avid fan base.

Still, any lone wolf six-stringer occasionally shows his limitations, and perhaps the inclusion of 26 tracks borders on overkill for all but the most rabid acoustic enthusiasts, as it takes a certain tranquil frame of mind to appreciate such a halcyon recording. It’s also doubtful that an all-instrumental double album is a proper introduction to a singer-songwriter renowned (in some circles, anyway) for not only his guitar abilities but his lyrical wit. Any initiation to Chapman should probably begin with Fully Qualified Survivor, just as any preamble to acoustic forefather Graham should begin with “Anji.” Trainsong probably won’t be the piece that finally elevates Chapman to where he deserves to be, but then again, commercial success was never part of his repertoire. Badass guitar playing is a different story, and you’ll find plenty of that here.

by Marcus David

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