The problem with many gifted guitarists is a tendency to show off technique, courting the spotlight with attention grabbing solos and fireworks. More impressive is a six-stringer that lets the instrument speak to the needs of the song, his fingers the lubricant to a broader conversation. SF’s Chris Haugen is the latter, a player of great natural feel, artful restraint, and collaborative empathy. Where his all-instrumental debut, Seahorse Rodeo (review), put him in line with Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges, his new eponymous album (pick it up here and listen below) is a grand piece of California rock in the spirit of vintage solo Stephen Stills, the playful side of Neil Young, and Later Days-era Mother Hips.
More than ever this very gifted guitarist – who spends a chunk of his time these days picking with Impound pals Poor Man’s Whiskey – has crafted an almost beatifically West Coast joint, a vibe announced by the shot of Haugen barefoot on the beach at sunset/sunrise on the front and palm trees and aqua blue skies adorning the back cover. Place matters, and clearly California is in the bloodstream of this gently wooing set. Haugen possesses a wining voice that flows nearly as smoothly as his guitar lines, which predictably give one a little tingle they’re so right on. This is precisely the soundtrack one wants to go with an afternoon of cold beer, a pinch of California’s best crop, and good friends, or perhaps a choice companion for tooling solo down Highway 1, one’s thoughts and this sweet music mingling as the waves crash and forests rise along the yellow lines.
While there are some lovely instrumentals here, it’s cool to hear Haugen expanding his range, showing off more than just his skill with his signature instrument. And he’s clearly got great instincts for putting together a top-notch band surrounding himself with Mark Degli Antoni (keys, samples), Mike Sugar (bass), Kate Gaffney (backing vocals), Asher Fulero (organ) and a particularly in-tune, effervescently right-on Wally Ingram (drums, percussion). This ensemble feels like it has legs and more music to make together, so keep your fingers crossed for live appearances. For now, there’s this finely wrought album to spend quality time with.