Trace Bundy’s evolution from capo-slinging, small-stage local hero (endearingly tagged as “the acoustic ninja” by his Boulder-area fans) to Internet sensation and international soloist has landed the acoustic guitarist in an enviably comfortable place — a well-defined and arrestingly honed technique, a relaxed and technically curious approach to songwriting and a core audience willing to follow his instrumental meditations more or less anywhere. And by virtue of a generously filled tour schedule, swelled by word of mouth repute and a steady Internet presence, Bundy also has the luxury of taking his time releasing new material on disc.
Bundy’s latest, Elephant King, coming more than three years since Missile Bell, suggests a player less eager to test the frontier of his fingerstyle technique and more deeply committed to finding its depth.
There are moments of technical prestidigitation, to be sure: the CD’s second cut, “Joy and Sorrow,” finds Bundy alternating between two guitars, one tuned to D major and the other to D minor, as Bundy unravels a lithe and ascending melodic figure over guitar-body percussion, and “Tres Capos,” wherein he employs the use of three fret board capos to pinch and tease varying shades of tonality. But in both cases, the effects on CD are relatively subtle and could be easily overlooked by the untrained ear —the gentle accompaniment of Dave Wilton’s bubbling Fender Rhodes underneath a section of “Tres Capos’” verse is more prominent than Bundy’s hardware experimentation. And while he uses a looping technique and overdubs himself in the mesmerizing “Overtime,” the net result presents itself as surprisingly organic.
What becomes obvious is that, for a guy who has mastered the fiendish intricacies of multi-voiced fingerstyle guitar, the center of the universe is still melody. The achingly melancholic ballad “Be Still” builds gentle figures into moments of single-syllable melody, with Bundy calling on violinist Aubrea Alford to punctuate the main voice. Brian McRae’s percussion grounding the bouncing “Bongolo” focuses the ear to the song’s shuffling beat, before Bundy steals it back and explores its main voice with different fretboard voicings. And Bundy approaches the CD’s closing number, the poised “Anchor,” with reticence and restraint, just leaving enough of the melody to carry the listener off without overstating or exploiting its potential. The best writers know that sometimes a story is served by dialogue spoken and unspoken, and the best composers will leave a melody hanging, like a sentence unfinished. Sometimes technique just needs to sit down and let the composition have its say.
The CD comes packaged with an accompanying DVD, shot at Bundy’s gig at the Boulder Theater last December, featuring live renditions of most of the new material, as well as versions of old Bundy favorites like “Hot Capo Stew” and “Dueling Ninjas.” Seeing the guitarist live is a provocative and engaging experience — Elephant King proves that just listening is OK, too.