Ben Kunin

Acoustic Adventures (Communion)

The soothing coastal paintings and pastel color washes on the packaging of Marin resident Ben Kunin's debut CD seem to indicate something mellow is about to waft from the speakers. Indeed, a solo-guitar instrumental album titled Acoustic Adventuresbrings to mind images of driftwood sculpting, male ponytail growth, and craftwork of looms, crystals, and clay. But this shaggy-haired musician shouldn't be mistaken for Yanni: He records for S.F.'s Communion label, an imprint known for releasing skewed indie rock from the likes of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and Refrigerator, and his open-ended guitar meditations draw on European folk and Indian classical styles, resulting in a sound that's spare and blissful rather than innocuously bland.

The disc's song titles tell the plain truth, eschewing elliptical poetry. "A Minor Key" is a sad little minor-key waltz, while "Meditation of the Heart" descends in melancholy fashion before quickening its pulse. On the three-part "Pastoral Suite," Kunin's fingers seem to stroll across grassy hills as he plays; on "Ghost Story" he mines a darker, haunted narrative.

The second part of "Pastoral Suite" is based on a composition by sarodist Ali Akbar Khan, for whom Kunin teaches sarod and Hindustani music theory at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael. The legendary musician's influence appears throughout, as Kunin explores ragalike tempos, improvises freely with themes, and provides tension and release to keep things from getting too sleepy. The mesmerizing "Brindavan" shows off Khan's impact the most strongly -- you can almost hear tablas thumping in the distance.

The production on the record is bare-bones -- just the warm thud and rattle of nylon strings -- which gives the notes room to breathe. In an era of computer-edited music, where more often means less, it's refreshing to hear the naked sound of a guitar played with conviction. This aesthetic aligns Kunin with artists such as John Fahey, Robbie Basho, and Leo Kottke, who all recorded on the Takoma label during the '60s. While not as brooding as Fahey nor as frantic as Basho, Kunin treads a similar path of musical syncretism and introspection. "The Crossing" reflects this spirit the best, as the title and feel suggest some kind of inner/outer journey.

While the album's presentation is low-key, the sounds inside are expansive. Acoustic Adventures is certainly mellow, but there's enough passion in Kunin's windmilling fingers to send even the most cynical listener into the cosmos.

 
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