obert AA Lowe is a wild-haired man with a wizardly mustache and a magical ability to tease another world out of his guitar and voice. A member of Chicago’s eclectic rock group 90 Day Men, Lowe uses the Lichens moniker to escape musical structure in favor of solo, improvised guitar work. Omns is the second effort from Lowe, and it retains the same spontaneity of 2005’s The Psychic Nature of Being but mutes the rough textures that made Being a sometimes squirmy affair. He’s also helped to recreate the multimedia feel of his performances by including a bonus DVD live performance. As the DVD intimates, he’ll sometimes riff on his treated, distorted guitar, and sometimes his rich voice sings wordless, breathtaking chants. Often, he loops back permutations of said guitars and chants into swirls of feedback and timeless choruses of wilderness folk.
Indeed, the institution of folk plays a big role in Lowe’s noodlings. Most of his somber riffs start out in some off-the-wall raga scale, but then dip in and out of the blues, or at least the blues as new folk proponents see it. He makes literal and figurative allusions to nature, sampling birdcalls and using feedback to recreate the white noise of the forest in the two-part, eighteen minute centerpiece “M St r ng W tchcr ft L v ng n Sp r t” (or “My Stirring Witchcraft Living In Spirit,” as some suggest). Listening to the guitar slowly give in to soft chants, it begins to make sense that Lichens is on Kranky, a label that has paid increasing attention to roots-inflected drone and ambient music in the 21st century. Like-minded label-mates Charalambides have played the same role of archetypal anti-minstrel, spreading a nonverbal gospel to a world that is fast outgrowing the old word-of-mouth musical tradition.
But the title Omns seems more appropriate for a Charalambides work than for this album. Far from ominous, the album breaks from the menacing tradition of psychedelic folk, dwelling in the ambient swashes of feedback and Lowe’s mournful vocals. Omns builds layers of texture and samples them on top of one another, with little sparks of ethereal melody flickering against the dark edges of the distorted oblivion. Folk Frippertronics seems an effective analogy. Lowe even plays the traditionalist with the desert jam “Bune,” crunching layers of Hendrix-like fuzz on top of one another with a “solo” crying softly into the feedback.
The bonus DVD is indeed a true bonus, documenting a stunning 28 minute improvised Lichens performance. Featuring long shots focused on Lowe as he weaves his complex tapestry of sound, the performance is both a tech geek’s dream and an introduction for a Kranky n00b. The two-camera performance catches a number of technical aspects of Lowe’s style that don’t immediately present themselves on record, like his lazy picking, his fiddling with samplers, and the seemingly lackadaisical way in which he builds his sound. It’s such an edifying performance that when the video cuts briefly to video accompaniments of forest scenes, it seems like we’re missing out on far more than just Lowe.