HEY! Get updates to this and the CD and 7" blogs via Twitter: @VinylUnderbite

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

John Fahey - 'Requia' (Vanguard)

I don't have any Fahey records on vinyl, but would love to find at least America (as it differs from the CD version), as hearing his guitar picking bathed in scratchy, late-60s vinyl atmospherics is surely wonderful. But despite my general dislike of the glass-mastered format, the mastering job on Requia is done right. The first sharp tones of 'Requiem for John Hurt' jump out of the speakers, so clean, and right up against my ears as if they're right over my shoulder. Maybe we're all used to listening to music through laptop speakers now, but this is music that still feels alive, even though it's approaching a half-century mark. Requia is also notable for it's 4-part, musique concrete-laden 'Requiem for Molly', which occupies most of the second half of this album and finds Fahey at his most experimental, at least until Womblife came around in the late 90s. And for those trying to truly understand Fahey, maybe this is the key. The liner notes explain how he started playing guitar in the 1950s but he failed to find the freedom he sought; while not directly relating this sense of constraint to the tape experimentations of 'Requiem for Molly' it's hard not to draw the parallel. As a tape piece, it's all over the place. Sped up loops and voice samples recall Steve Reich's tape work from around the same time; the incorporation of marching bands, funeral music and other earlier American styles, over which Fahey alternates between a mournful chordal progression and more abstracted slide playing and frantic picking, makes a chaotic tapestry that nonetheless retains its appropriate colour throughout. Actually, it makes me feel a bit of the same ur-Americana as Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, released nearly the same time. The other tracks on Requia are solid too; 'When the Catfish is in Bloom' is described as a 'cantica' (along with the closing beauty, 'Fight On Christians, Fight On') and it's alcohol-fueled composition, described in the liner notes, makes me wonder if Richard Brautigan was sitting in the coffee shop where it was composed. The cover of this is also wonderful - Fahey looks a bit like a traveling door-to-door salesman, with his tweed jacket and skinny tie. His position is straight-forward, the way a "folk" record should portray him, as he just looks like a nice young man. There's nothing visible here to indicate the far-out sounds on (imagining this is a vinyl original) side two. But they're not actually that far-out. Compared to the forced surrealism of, say, Zappa's earliest work (which we must admit we'll probably never reach in this project) or even After Bathing at Baxter's, the tape collages of 'Requiem for Molly' are naturalistic and even subtle -- making this a musique concrete work that you could play for your grandmother. Especially when it's made by what looks to be such a nice young man.

Monday, 23 December 2013

John Fahey - 'The Legend of Blind Joe Death' (Takoma)

According to discogs.com, Blind Joe Death has been issued 12 times, and what makes it confusing is that Fahey re-recorded parts of it later in the 60s. This is a semi-authoritative release, though it's not for completists, which I'm not. As a document of Fahey's earliest style it's good enough for me. We all know this was a unique invention, an American folk guitar form that was set forth assertively and influenced legions. The blues roots are inevitable; most of the Blind Joe songs follow a 12-bar or similar pattern. But somehow Fahey's playing doesn't raise any of the usual questions about race or authenticity; it's a confident and singular vision that is also flexible. There's a remarkable variety of mood here, from the spare melancholy of 'On Doing an Evil Deed Blues' to the thick, reverberating grandeur of 'The Trasncendental Waterfall', whose length and title alone indicate you're in for a ride. Having listened to a bunch of Fahey in the past, there's a lot of familiarity to the cadences, the pauses, and the sense of motion. When Fahey's own voice introduced the last track, "West Coast Blues', there's something chilling about hearing him so young, especially as my introduction to his work was with his late 90's "comeback" recordings (and the time I saw him live and met him was shortly before his passing). The idea of re-editing an album and releasing it multiple times, making no version truly authoritative, is a radical one. It makes the record feel like a living, evolving work with no necessary endpoint, and that feels somewhat progressive for its time, though I doubt it was its intention. Maybe Blind Joe Death is the Google Docs of acoustic guitar records; additionally, the presentation of the recordings as being by Blind Joe Death could raise all sorts of postmodern questions about authorship, etc. None of which was Fahey's intention, of course, but it's a funny way to reinvent this. And if the man was about anything, it was reinvention.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Extra Glenns - 'Martial Arts Weekend' (Absolutely Kosher)

Guess what? I'm a massive Mountain Goats fan, but since it's gonna be 2021 before I ever reach the M's I'll just tell you now: from The Hound Chronicles on, I'm enraptured, up to and through Full Force Galesburg which is the apotheosis of some unobtainable magic that is uniquely tied to my own adolescence and development of an understanding of art, language, and expression. I should also tell you that Galesburg came out when I was 17, and his post-Galesburg records I still enjoy, occasionally love, but something has been missing for me. It's me that's changed, not him; nothing but love and respect for the big D himself here from Cinderblock HQ and I'll save my gushing for, well, 2021. Anyway, amongst that era of perfection lies the Infidelity 7", a rare example of a supergroup that truly is, or whatever clich├ęs come to mind. This full-length didn't appear til almost a decade later and I scooped it up fervently, even though by 2001 my obsessive Mountain Goats collecting phase had, I guess, waned. I never thought we'd hear anything from the Extra Glenns after that 7" so this was quite a surprise - but if a new Extra Glenns release comes out next month, I won't be shocked. The once-per-decade release rate is a good way to be. Martial Arts Weekend occupies a really strange, almost forgotten corner of my Darnielle pantheon. It's a completely solid album; I can't pick it apart for any reason except my general criticism of later Mountain Goats (or what now is probably mid-period to current Mountain Goats), which I already stated above: I changed. These songs just came at a time when they didn't resonate with me as much as the first few hundred Darnielle songs I consumed. As on the 7" Franklin Bruno takes a backseat but not too much of one; his contributions are enough to distinguish this from the Mountain Goats recordings of that era, even though the songwriting is almost all Darnielle. But for some reason, I always forget that this record exists. There's wonderful tracks - 'Ultra Violet', 'Sombody Else's Parking Lot in Sebastopol' - but they never attain the personal highs of, say, any song on Zopilote Machine. We get a rather straight, piano driven cover of 'Memories', from my favourite Leonard Cohen record, which somehow replaces the leering swagger of Cohen with that earnest bi-fi sound. 'Malevolent Seascape Y' follows the X of 1993 and is just as malevolent; 'The River Song' is pastoral, genteel, and resigned at the same time. Bruno is an artist whose work I always liked but never got WAY into; Nothing Painted Blue were just a bit too far away from anything I could latch onto, though maybe I just didn't try hard enough. I think this might be the last recorded occurence of 'Going to...' songs but I'm too lazy to pull out other CDs and check dates. I'm glad for this project because it reminded me of the existence of this album, which over a decade later reveals some forgotten pleasures.