Essential New Music: Wendy Eisenberg’s “Auto”

When you need to respond quickly, you might let your fingers do the walking. Wendy Eisenberg has the sort of monstrously accomplished chops that practically guarantee that in jazz and improvisational settings, they’ll (Eisenberg prefers the pronouns “they” and “them”) be able to take an artfully circuitous route and still get to the destination with time to spare.

The Massachusetts-based guitarist also has a background in bedroom songcraft, where the distance between inspiration and recording is as close as the laptop on the nightstand. But when you need to travel some distance, a car is the way to go. So when Eisenberg decided to take on regrettable interpersonal patterns that stretch from childhood up to the collapse of their band, Birthing Hips, they made Auto.

Instead of virtuosic instrumentals or dashed-off sketches, Eisenberg’s latest album is a scrupulously crafted sequence of songs. While each tune is as packed with event as Eisenberg’s instrumental guitar outings, the action is spread between their restrained but still dexterous picking and impressively nimble singing, with producer Nick Zanca’s unobtrusive, constantly changing arrangements subtly shading Eisenberg’s performances. On “The Star,” for example, the accompaniment shifts between a metronomic beat, a rollicking full-band samba and a jazz groove that seems to be swinging even as it slips under water like a drowning man, with each shift relating obliquely to the song’s narrative changes.

Eisenberg’s lyrics move with equal adroitness between past and present, guilt and injury, rue and relief. All that motion could make a listener queasy, but Weisenberg steers with a navigator’s unerring instinct for just how long to stay on each leg of the course. This isn’t an album you’ll want to put on and ignore, but if you gain satisfaction from a record that asks you to notice each twist in the journey, Auto is your ride.

—Bill Meyer