Review: Bill MacKay – Locust Land

Chicago mainstay Bill MacKay has a real knack for balancing his records’ sound with vocal songs, fairly weird instrumental soundscapes and guitar workouts, all of which he is more than adept at. Locust Land, his third solo outing for Drag City, is his most diverse yet, but also his most harmonious and satisfying, which is high praise, considering the quality of Esker and Fountain Fire. It feels like this one has been painstakingly put together, with every detail pored over, from the tight run time of a fraction under half an hour to the ratio of woozy versus uplifting music.

A good example of the latter is single Glow Drift, a piece built on a rock-solid rhythm section (Sam Wagster on bass and Mikel Patrick Avery percussing), giving Bill free rein to flex and play some sweet guitar parts. The song chugs along and is done before you know it, but it’s one you will want to come back and listen to as a whole as well as dissect (the bass lines are super slinky, and the percussion somehow tight but ramshackle). Great stuff and very different in structure to the vocal led songs in particular, which Bill deliberately keeps cleaner, with no ‘wasted’ notes. Take Keeping in Time, which uses little more than strummed acoustic guitar chords to frame his clear singing. Half of You is similar in mood, with soft strands of electric guitar working with the acoustic to bring a hazy feel to the piece that offsets the chewier songs.

One of these is Radiator, a denser tune, still with a solid structure, but with dual distorted electric guitars filling the space and some cool high organ playing hiding in the shadows. The bass is killer again here, pinning down the core of the piece and allowing more freedom in the rest of the playing. Looser sounding are the two miniatures, opener Phantasmic Fairy and penultimate track Neil’s Field, which features a lovely ethereal wordless vocal from Janet Beveredge Bean. The former plays out like an alien landscape that could have featured on Bill’s Black Duck trio album or the ace BCMC one, Foreign Smokes. Itchy electronically manipulated sounds punctuate a haunting, reverb soaked guitar part to create a ghostly, micro soundscape.

Locust Land is a detailed, meticulous album that will reward many listens. Bill’s decision to keep the run time relatively short due to the complexity of some of the music (which never feels overdone) is discerning and the nine tracks hang together beautifully. Locust Land is a bold and adventurous record that has plenty of character and is accessible enough to spin multiple times—another splendid effort from an excellent musician.

Locust Land is released on 24th May via Drag City Records. Bill plays London’s Cafe Oto on 4th September (more dates below).

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