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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.

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