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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 clich√© 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.

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