Hands on Strings,
(Ozella, 2007)

You'd be forgiven for expecting a CD titled Offroad to be wildly experimental and unlistenably innovative. But apart from fudging the boundaries between jazz, instrumental and world music, this recording by German guitar duo Hands on Strings only strays a little off the main road. The result: a melodic and energetic set of 11 guitar tracks that resist being pigeonholed into a genre.

Acoustic guitarist Thomas Fellow and electric guitarist Stephen Bormann bring the very different sounds of their instruments together in a series of spirited musical dialogues that never lose sight of a strong sense of melody. Picked and strummed, echoing and engaging with each other, their guitars produce a remarkable wealth of sounds over the course of Offroad's 50 minutes. The electric guitar emerges as the more prominent of the two instruments, but there is never any doubt that this is the work of a duo -- a good one.

The CD opens with its titular track, a loping, rangy melody picked out on electric guitar and set against an acoustic background, turning a little jazzy halfway through. It's followed by a version of Astor Piazzolla's "Libertango" that, if lacking some of the elegance of more traditional orchestral renditions, nonetheless has an easygoing and likable freshness. The same melody sounds astonishingly different on Bormann's smooth electric guitar than it does in its dramatic final moments on Fellow's harder-edged acoustic guitar.

The mood varies somewhat between tracks like the frenetic "Loro," which sounds almost like a happy version of the Batman theme song, and the dreamy, contemplative "Manha de Carnival." "Midnight Train" is a fun, rhythmic piece that gradually builds up to emulate the rush of a passing train. While other tracks are less readily distinguishable, everything on the CD is tuneful and skillfully executed.

Guest musicians join Hands on Strings for just two tracks: Volker Schlott's soprano sax gives "I Isola Misteriosa" a stronger jazz flavor, and Cristin Claas's sprightly vocals are a perfect accompaniment to the unabashedly sunny "Childhood Dream." Alas, the digipak does not come with liner notes to translate the lyrics or offer the artists' thoughts on their compositions.

Offroad is very easy to listen to -- a little too much so to live up to its name, perhaps, but I'm not disappointed. This is a really enjoyable, lightly caffeinated blend of music from two guitarists who clearly know what they are doing and do it well.

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review by
Jennifer Mo

1 December 2007

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