Over the last two years and through a variety of short-run cassette releases, guitarist David Shapiro—always recording under the name Alexander—has explored a number of different moods and sounds. 2016’s Norton St. was filled with small conflagrations of Bill Orcutt-style mania, a fight for dominance over the detuned agony of his instrument. Celeste Arias, released two years ago, was far more spacious and melodic with his finger-picked acoustic work feeling welcoming and charmingly diffuse.
For his first full-length album, Shapiro leans more towards the latter approach with nine songs of varying lengths and moods but that cohere around the tones of his acoustic guitar and a breadth of scope that evokes the proud tradition of American Primitive music.
What the album also resonates with is a mood of self-reliance. Shapiro not only self-titled the album but he is releasing it on his own without the help of a traditional record label. But most importantly, he recorded the whole thing using a guitar that he built on his own. There’s nothing, tonally, that distinguishes his instrument from one that he might have bought or borrowed, but there’s a feeling of warm pride that radiates from this humble collection.
That’s a nice hook to have as well, considering what little effort Shapiro puts in to explaining his material. As he did with most of his cassette releases, most of the songs on Alexander have no names, just Roman numerals as titles. That is likely the point, a way to focus our attention on the music rather than trying to parse out any meaning behind his unfolding melodies and tumbling drones. The only one that gets a proper appellation is “Catfish Blues,” a midtempo country sashay that, whether he likes it or not, does call to mind a sun-dappled day fishing by a placid body of water.
It’s a knowingly imperfect record, with slightly loose tempos and little duffs (that stray note that he accidentally hits before the end of “Catfish,” a few rushed sequences here and there) occasionally popping up. Those little bruises don’t take away from the sweetness of this whole affair. If anything, they humanize Shapiro and return our overtired ears that have heard so much music squeezed and shaped into flaw-free diamonds. Here, instead, is an intimate collection that feels as if it was being made, in real time, for each individual listener.