Exploring The Wonderfully Unsullied World of Finger-Picked Acoustic Guitar Blues/Folk/Raga/Whatever
How easy it is to get lost in this stuff. The rice-paper umbrella for this monolithic-on-its-face style of instrumental, mostly finger-picked guitar folk, at least since the first disc of the three-part Imaginational Anthem series came out in 2005, has been "American primitive." In name, that might be misleading--the folk and blues ideas that inform this music have more claim to history than John Fahey, the since-passed grand old master of the sort of music collected on the Imaginational Anthem discs--a graceful, meditative style of acoustic guitar blues raga or New Age folk music, short plaintive notes that just wander and wander and wander until it's the best kind of time-suck drone.
Primitive, then, because it is only fingers, a brain, and an acoustic guitar. It doesn't change with technology. Wordless, it's as reflective of politics and the world's various disasters as a chamber sonata. You could think of it as an exceptionally pretty blank page. "American primitive" might fail, then, because the music is modern in the sense that it can't really get more modern. In the 40-odd years since Fahey's name became known in rural Maryland, this hasn't really changed. And that has to mean something.
This idea is certainly one of the points the three-disc Imaginational Anthem series is making. (The first was released in 2005, the second in '06, and the third earlier this year; this spring they were released as a box by Tomkins Square Records.) The first disc is opened and closed by two versions of the title track by Max Ochs, brother of folk singer Phil and friend of Fahey. "Imaginational Anthem" was composed as a tribute to the latter in 1969, and Ochs claims "it still ain't finished" in an interview with the track's producer. Rerecorded in 2004, Ochs' first instrumental recording in 37 years, the notable evolution is that it has become more complicated--more fingers on the strings, heavy strums at the refrain, more identifiably folk-country--but the net effect is the same: It is simple and pretty with brief bouts of poetic urgency. Mainly, though, it is just simple and pretty. (Oddly, the 2004 version sounds a little dustier than its predecessor.)
And there is something alluring about the idea of the song as an organism, too. "Imaginational Anthem" is less a static composition than a broad sketch--lines to be filled in and then refilled. In the same interview, Ochs was asked what "Imaginational Anthem" would say if it had words, to which he replied, "It would pray, `Don't die, please stay alive. Stop being a ghost'"--which, suitably, feels like the most pretty and most cryptic nine words, ever.
The Ochs name is known, but the series goes even further into familiarity with inclusions from Ornette Coleman cohort Bern Nix, Gyan and Terry Riley, Jose Gonzales, and, naturally, Jack Rose. The Riley family track, "La Cigale (The Locust)," is a standout here, incongruous not only for it being a duet, but for its pauses, lingering notes, and piano. It's jazzy--you imagine it in a dim city hotel lounge rather than a rustic living room--but those quick guitar fingerings are there, rising out of the song like a ghostly wisp. The Nix inclusion is just as odd--jazz guitar soloing in the proper virtuosic sense rather than the inward-gazing wanderings elsewhere on the discs.
But genre incursions like that are part of the fun of this, and maybe the first stage in getting past the immediate sameness of Anthem. In that same section of the disc where you find Nix and the Rileys smuggling jazz, Bob Hadley brings in his "Celtic Reverie," with which the collection becomes just a little less distinctly American--but not by much.
It all does come back to Fahey, though. And it's not a surprise that his "O' Holy Night" makes an appearance (also on the first Anthem disc, the trio's high-water mark by a good margin). It's a Fahey signature track--and maybe the most sublime three and half minutes you can spend doing anything--and it might seem strange that a rarity or at least something unheard would make it onto a collection that's nearly a de facto tribute.
But Anthem doesn't appear to about pasting together scraps for American primitive enthusiasts, rather proving a point about the style of music being a cohesive whole that, independent of fashion or technology, moves at a glacial pace, if it moves in any direction at all. It's like a genre island of extremely dexterous guitar wonders that would set itself on fire before a rescue boat from the outside world could ever touch its beach.
And, thank God for it. Uncut's John Mulvey made the massive understatement that "I could listen to this all day" in a Imaginational Anthem review last spring. Well, no--at this writing, it's been about 10 days of basically nothing but. The thought of not having these meandering lullabies creates fears of withdrawal; you could compare it to a drug, but what an insult that would be. It's time to venture back out into all of the other music out there now, but damned if it doesn't feel real good to know that this will be here to come back to, unchanged and unscathed.
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