Light in the Attic has now reissued Nicholson’s calming, gorgeous Christopher Idylls on vinyl.
The legendary Big Star was best known for a skewed power-pop and soulful hard rock. But one of the most striking moments in their catalog is one of the most gentle: the shimmering acoustic guitar passage that opens “Watch the Sunrise.” The sometimes multi-tracked acoustic guitars on Big Star’s #1 Record came thanks to resident folkie Chris Bell and the influence of a brilliant guitarist who recorded what was to be the first release on Ardent Records. Larry “Gimmer” Nicholson recorded his sole album at Memphis’ famed Ardent Studios in 1968, but due to the artist’s own misgivings, it wasn’t released until 1994. Light in the Attic has now reissued Nicholson’s calming, gorgeous Christopher Idylls on vinyl. Those familiar with the Ardent saga may find it sounds much like an album-length version of that “Watch the Sunrise” intro – but better.
In fact, album opener “Millennial Harbinger” includes a passage of rhythm guitar that sounds a lot like “Watch the Sunrise” with different chords. Like much of Christopher Idylls, it’s a gently winding, highly melodic multi-track meditation that suggests acoustic Big Star. That’s not to say that Nicholson is derivative of Big Star, or of the solo guitarists that came into prominence in the ’60s. While John Fahey and Robbie Basho developed their finger-picking with a drama informed by early Americana, Nicholson paved his own melodic path, one that, like Big Star, may have been ahead of its time.
While most of the six tracks here are based on Nicholson’s gift for melody and texture, the two-and-a-half minute fragment “Charon’s Crossing” is more experimental. Nicholson liked to feed his guitar through delay pedals, and here he multi-tracks his lightly distorted acoustic guitar, phasing it in and out so much that it comes off like a piece from the electronic avant-garde, as much a product of the studio as his instrument. It’s a departure from the rest of the album, but its layers are of a piece with its sonic imprint.
Nicholson’s gift is such that he can sustain interest and melody for an 11-minute track. “Red and White Light Ship” opens with lush, layered finger-picked melodies before gently shifting textures and rhythm over an epic length. The crisp recording, engineered by Terry Manning (who would go on to work on Led Zeppelin III), brings out every chiming note from Nicholson’s guitars, and it’s a meditative pleasure just to sit (or walk) and listen to its sheer beauty. The shorter “Hermetic Waltz” again recalls Big Star’s #1 Record, and on this gorgeous piece in three-quarter time, you can hear all of Nicholson’s chops in one achingly melodic showcase, from rhythm to finger-picking to harmonics.
As suits what was to be an Ardent release, the cover of Christopher Idylls features a photo by William Eggleston, the legendary street photographer who moved among the denizens of the Memphis music scene. His photos grace all three Big Star albums, and he even played piano on Third. While the vinyl edition, with a gatefold and tip-on jacket, was not available for preview, the sound quality of the digital downloads provided is bright and clear, and one can always count on high quality packaging from the label.
Light in the Attic suggests that Christopher Idylls is proto-new-age, perhaps to dovetail with I Am the Center, the label’s compilation of private press new age albums. Nicholson’s music is beautiful and relaxing indeed, but his album is more consistently engaging than anything on that set. After the album was finally released in the ’90s, Manning hoped to get the guitarist back in the studio, but it wasn’t to be. Larry “Gimmer” Nicholson died in 2000. He was only 54 years old. His sole album is a marvel of melody and texture, a must-hear for anyone who loves Big Star or acoustic guitar – in other words, for anyone who likes music.