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Sunday, 30 March 2014

John Fahey - 'Rain Forests, Oceans and Other Themes' (Varrick)

Fast-forwarding nearly two decades from America, Fahey here delivers a set of mostly-covers, recorded live in an old church. He's accompanied by Terry Robb on about half the tracks, and the effect is jarring if you're used to the expansive songs of his 60s records. The opening track, 'Melody McOcean' (one of the few originals here) already sets a tone - the melodies are more carefully pronounced, building on tones in a way that makes me think about melodic indie guitar bands like Bedhead who followed in the 90s. There's quite a bit of distortion on these notes, which is odd given the liner notes which go on about the recording process and the delicate nature that was in the old church-studio where it happened. It is a great large room and the harshness of the CD format really pushes up against it, making some of the highs almost too-brittle to enjoy. If this is Fahey in pastel, it's OK by me - 'Melody McOcean' has an epic grandeur that while less dusty than his earlier work, shows a development and the same brilliant compositional ear. 'Rain Forest' is a bit more strummy, and a few of the shorter pieces such as 'Atlantic High' and The World is Waiting for the Sunrise' take on that old magic. This is definitely a cooler album and I'm not just saying that cause it's about rain forests and there are waves on the cover; the tonal qualities of the guitars, no doubt due to the recording style, are glossier and echoey. The wooly transfigurations here merge into a spacious breeze, and the numerous covers make this feel even more alien. Clapton's 'Layla' is the first one, and it's pretty straight-forward as it goes, and I must say dazzling when Robb and Fahey intertwine in a speedy manner. A Moondog  piece makes an appearance, and there's some synth, percussion and bass to fill that out (cause you need rhythm with Moondog!) - it's an odd collection of sounds, more malevolent than Moondog usually is, but with some nice ringing open chords to balance the strange modes. The most curious cover is probably Stravinsky's 'The Firebird', as the second part lets the room ambience drift over all. It's beautiful and fragile; you can almost feel a fireplace burning in the background as the final resounding strum mockingly dismisses the theme. 

Monday, 17 March 2014

John Fahey - 'America' (Takoma/Fantasy)

At the deepest point of my Fahey interest (1999-2001, roughly) I was convinced beyond any doubt that America was his masterpiece - though I must say that I hadn't heard them all, and still haven't. This was due largely to a friend uncovering a vinyl copy; he dubbed it to a tape, and during a long afternoon drive across central Pennsylvania we listened to it while trying to stay awake and the synergy was magic - the long sweeping guitarscapes were a perfect complement to the dim light of I-80, with rolling hills in the distance that seemed to write their own elegies. I immediately ordered this CD, which strangely expanded and contracted the LP at the same time. A lot of additional material was added - the first nine tracks, in fact - but one of the LP tracks was shortened to fit the fascistic 75 minute runtime of a compact disc. But it's great in both formats; I can't, at this point, imagine America without the beautiful 11-minute 'Dalhart, Texas, 1967' or the incredible version of 'Amazing Grace' (the best these ears have ever heard, with piercing shards of guitar cutting through the nonbelievers like machine gun fire). And neither were on the original LP. When we finally get around to it, I'm taken back to that drive and the transformative power of music (or whatever cliché you prefer) is in full effect. America is built around two 15- minute tracks, 'Mark 1:15' and 'The Voice of the Turtle', and the longer formats are where Fahey shines the most (although the former, I believe, is the truncated one). These pieces take their time to build, and especially in the case of 'Voice of the Turtle', represent probably the fullest evidence of his guitar genius. The shorter tracks are also great though - 'Dvorak' is celebratory and when looking at the strange, primitive artwork ('The destruction of Takoma Park, Maryland') while listening to it, it feels spooky. This is no longer necessarily my favourite album of his - I would probably take the wistful longing of Days Have Gone By, or just decline to pick one - but it's a formidable entry into American music. The title seems to acknowledge this, and while it's easy to inject a whole lot of context into your work by titling it 'America' (I'm looking at you, Baudrillard), it's fitting for the self-made man he was. I'm always drawn to the way mid-century American artists dealt with space, to me one of the fundamental issues of American culture - and the long format improvicompositions here breathe in and exhale, like a William Carlos Williams poem. The title track itself (left off the original issue!) is perhaps the most impressionistic part of the album, with a resonant high-register introduction before the resounding, aggressive strides of the main theme kick in. It's easy to think of this as the whole 200-year history compressed into a 7 minute instrumental guitar piece and I'll succumb to that analysis. Though it's lacking any musique concrete experimentation or weirder elements, this is Fahey's magnum opus for sure, and it's been recently reissued in full on vinyl so I'll probably make the conversion soon - which is the first time it's ever all been together, even if only two minutes are missing here.

John Fahey - 'The Yellow Princess' (Vanguard)

Fahey goes 'serious' in the liner notes here, explaining that he's tired of writing humorous record notes, for 'such publicity stunts are no longer necessary'. Then it transforms into a beautiful description of the title piece, written for a boat, and with a description of one's place in the cosmos, Whitman-motivated, that is as stirring and majestic to read as the composition is to hear. 'The Yellow Princess' is Fahey strumming and picking frantically in standard tuning, creating a dazzling array of  guitar sounds. It's a momentum picked up a few tracks later in 'Lion', an open-G eulogy to his housecat that moves through moods, appropriately given it's inspiration. The Yellow Princess overall shows Fahey in the extremes - slow, mournful picking and jaunty whimsicality both share a loveseat. The longest piece is 'Irish Setter', another one for a pet, but that's only 7 minutes, making this very digestible overall. Fahey's accompanied by a band on two tracks, but it's minimal - 'Dance of the Inhabitants of the Invisible city of Bladensburg' is actually one of the most spare pieces on the disc, starting with a few cautious steps before building to a swirling tornado, with an additional guitar adding a shimmery, bendy feel to a lengthy buildup. Fahey leans slightly more towards severity, and away from beauty, with modal progressions and minor key explorations ('Irish Setter', 'Charles A. Lee: In Memoriam'). But when he drives straight-ahead with simplistic wonder (as on the sublime 'View'), it provides the complete yin-yang of the Fahey spirit, and you start to see what his reputation is based upon.