A Saccharine Heart

Guitar Masters Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles offer up a set of standards with little change in tune

Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles

Instrumental albums are always a tricky proposition. Unless it’s some compelling form of jazz or fusion, the lack of lyrics often denies the listener a hook to hold onto.

It’s a shame of course; there are a variety of sounds — especially in the world music category — and each demands that one leans in to listen so to fully appreciate the delicacy and nuance that those sounds have to offer. Yet all too often, instrumentals are negated to the status of muzak or elevator music or simply background sounds by which to sip a cocktail, engage in quiet conversation or wait your turn at the doctor’s office.

The other problem faced by artists operating in this genre is that all too often the music they make consists of covers — instrumental interpretations of well known standards given the supple touch of technique each musician brings to the table. It makes for pleasant listening of course; but again, it’s rarely the type of music that garners a close hearing. It’s almost as if any musicianship involved is taken entirely for granted. Once a familiar melody is established, there’s rarely any need to pay closer attention.

Which brings us to Heart Songs, the new release by guitarists Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles. Both have earned distinction as virtuosos–two of the last three Certified Guitar Players in existence. Emmanuel in particular has been highly touted of late; like Joe Bonamassa and Gary Clark Jr., his name has been popping up in the more prestigious circles. Of all the instrumentalists that ply their trade, guitar slingers still rank high in the list of those that attract the public’s scrutiny.

Tommy Emmanuel & John Knowles’ Heart Songs

Still, the album title itself strongly suggests that the music contained within is decidedly of a sappier variety. It’s an easy listening collection that’s comprised of songs that typically find a fit with what’s commonly referred to as MOR. As the name implies, it focuses nearly entirely on well-worn ballads that have been a part of the public’s collective consciousness for the better part of the past 30 or 40 years. Listing the names is enough to suggest what the album will offer. Indeed, “How Deep Is Your Love” (repeated as a live read as one of two bonus tracks), “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” “Somewhere,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” find the duo banking on the familiarity factor and plying gentle instrumental arrangements to bolster the bond entirely.

Emmanuel and Knowles do attempt to bolster the set list with one and two original offerings respectively, but none of these meager contributions do all that much in the way of adding any intrigue. Pleasantry pervades the set as a whole, but its competence rather than creativity that comes to the fore. Consider this collection little more than mere mood music overall.


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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