Alun Vaughan: “Kindness of Strangers” – Review

Solo bass guitar. Who the hell needs that? Who would want that? Seriously, the electric bass guitar is not one of the instruments that are usually found on instrumental solo albums, and not as a lead instrument, either. Yet, for English bassist Alun Vaughan, who plays in rock and jazz groups as a bass player, the bass solo performance seems the logical choice, as his releases under his own name on bandcamp show.

Contrary to many other artists in that realm (and with that, I mean mainly guitarists playing solo stuff), Vaughan uses neither vocal tracks nor massive amounts of live loops or multitracking: the majority of the tracks is really an unaccompanied (and only mildly processed, if at all) 6-string bass guitar on a total of eleven self-penned tracks, released under a creative commons license.

The album starts off with arpeggiated chords played in the higher registers of the instrument on the title track, before Vaughan moves into some (Bach-patita-inspired) part with a baroque feel, before the theme is stated in a more groove-oriented part which seamlessly moves back to the arpeggiated chords. Already on this track, one thing becomes apparent: this is not a bass chops showcase album, and while Vaughan often enough lets his prowess on the instrument show, the album is mainly a collection of nice solo tunes, which he happens to play on a bass guitar – thus nicely shipping around that dangerous cliff that lurks in instrument virtuoso album water.

A hail to another virtuoso who is all too often overlooked for his outstanding qualities as a composer and songwriter, Jimi contains lots of nods to – you guessed it – Jimi Hendrix. A short composition moving somewhere between “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Hey Joe”, this is a nice new voice among all those “in the memory of” releases.

Stilistic diversity is also something you’d expect from Vaughan’s bio – and if you do that, you won’t be disappointed. After a short nod to guitarist Matt Stevens via a cover of the track “Big Sky” from Steven’s latest release “Ghost” (which I actually like better than Stevens’ original recording), we come to “Nomad”, my favourite track from the album. The bass guitar is bathed in surreal reverb spaces here, and playing in Arabian scales, with dropped in short chord bursts giving it an almost flamenco feel, before the theme is intonated on top of a pulsating pedal point – similar in style to “Southbound Pachyderm” by Primus’ Les Claypool, another very creative bass player. On this track, there’s again hints of virtuoso playing, but again, it’s part of the musical statement and does not simply take its place.

The album continues with further diversity – the Nashville-style “The Featherplucker’s Son” stands alongside “Elegy”, where a looped chord progression through pitch shifter effects forms the basis for a improvisation on top of a haunting melody. The album ends with  “Closing Time”, reminiscing of music from the Great American Songbook era, before we’re launched into another playful, incredibly fast tune, aptly titled “Too Much Caffeine”, a live recording.

Contrary to Vaughan’s other works on bandcamp, this album is not offered on a “pay what you want (including free)” basis – instead, the price of £4.50 (or more) is donated entirely to the MS Society – a choice perhaps inspired by the Café Noodle Festival, to which Vaughan had also added a stellar performance.

“Kindness of Strangers” is, in summary, perhaps best characterized as a collection of songs – albeit from many musical styles – which just happen to be played on a solo bass guitar. Even with the stilistic diversity, those tunes work well together when listened to from beginning to end, and show Vaughan’s quality both as an instrumentalist and as a songwriter. If there was one thing to critizise, it would be the sound engineering: it’s a well known fact that the bass guitar with its very dynamic attack and a frequency range which extends well into the low range is kinda tricky to treat sonically, and while Vaughan has mostly done well to that regard, it seems that on some tracks some better treatment could have improved the listening experience even more. Apart from that – give that album a listen, you won’t regret it.

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