The era of forward-thinking acoustic folk music never quite seems to arrive. Name a decade, name a year, and there are always a handful of fantastic musicians bubbling under, never quite obscure but never quite breaking through to popular success.
Of course, this make sense. No matter how fast an acoustic guitarist’s hands, no matter how subtle their tonal shadings, they are automatically relegated to the second rank of artists as far as popular success goes. Look at Picasso’s charcoals. They are breathtaking in their power, full of energy and vigor and darkness and light, and the best of them are fully the equal of his greatest achievements as a painter in my humble and perfectly uninformed opinion. If the attractions are more subtle for the lack of color, I at least find them no less profound.
And so it goes with acoustic guitarists. Not to take anything away from Edward Van Halen, but every sixteen year old guitar novice soon learns that it really is easier to sound awesome on the guitar if you crank up the volume to 11 and slap on some echo. That’s great and fine – there is no moral dimension to rocking out – but it is a much more demanding thing to blow minds if it’s just you, your fingers, and six strings on a hollow box of wood. The musical statements are just as compelling (and undoubtedly more so in many, many cases), but there are just not as many people willing to extend their ears a little and listen.
I once stood outside the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts for forty-five minutes in the cold, transfixed by the late acoustic guitar master Michael Hedges. I was early to see whoever was playing the late show, I didn’t have a ticket for Hedges, and the place was sold out. So I stood outside in the snow, watching in awe as Michael Hedges scattered flurries of notes all over the room, as he half-danced along with the music he made, as he spun heroic tales all on his own with two hands, six strings, and an electronic echo box. As a guitarist, as a music fan, as a person not particularly open to the attractions of poetry (much less new-agey guitar music) I was flabbergasted at the spectacle. The fundamental laws of my universe changed a little on that snowy New England night.
The new compilation Imaginational Anthem on Near Mint Records is a lovely collection of acoustic guitar performances both old and new. The oldest recordings date from the mid-1960s, the newest were recorded last year, and it’s nearly impossible to tell without reading the liner notes which is which. Taken together, the songs on Imaginational Anthem are a stunning digest of the past forty years in solo acoustic guitar music. The best of them changed my universe a little once again.
The title of the album is borrowed from a nifty little tune written by Phil Ochs’ cousin Max which appears here twice, in a 1969 and a 2004 version. Fittingly, Ochs wrote the tune as a tribute to the godfather of modern acoustic guitar music, Michael Fahey, who also appears on Imaginational Anthem with a perfect little jewelbox of a performance of “O Holy Night.”
Although he is represented only by this one rarely heard cut, Fahey’s spirit looms large over the entire collection. As the foremost formal innovator of acoustic guitar music in the 1950s and 1960s, Fahey set the tone for an entire half century of musicians with his wide-ranging genre excursions, unorthodox tunings, and use of non-western scales and styles. As a teacher, he nurtured legends like Leo Kottke. As head of Takoma Records, he released albums by a number of great guitarists who otherwise probably would have gone unheard on record. (A number of Takoma releases have been reissued in the past ten years or so. Intrepid souls would do well to check them out.)
For having nearly every note on it made with six strings and a hollow box of wood, Imaginational Anthem is a refreshingly diverse collection. Fahey’s “O Holy Night” is a neat and orthodox reading of the Christmas carol, albeit a lovely one with proper voice leading and perfect technique. On the other end of the spectrum are Gyan Riley and his father, renowned minimalist composer Terry Riley, who offer up “La Cigale (the Locust),” a contemplative piano and guitar duet that is as unfocused, conversational, and random-sounding as “O Holy Night” is perfectly mannered.
The rest of the album falls between these extremes. Brad Barr (guitarist for the Rhode Island jam band The Slip) delivers an amazing tune called “Bouba’s Bounce,” a stunning display of technique and musicianship that lacks structure but hangs together as a piece nonetheless thanks to Barr’s ability. As with Fahey’s, Barr’s performance lives and dies by the expression he brings to his playing, and even if I wasn’t already aware of his considerable talents I’d know from “Bouba’s Bounce” that Barr is a player of uncommon sensitivity.
I could also listen all day long to standouts like Jack Rose’s “White Mule III,” a muscular modal workout blending folk and flamenco techniques played on a guitar equipped with drone strings, and “Night After Sidewalk” by Kaki King.
A word about King. She is a bartender at the New York rock venue The Mercury Lounge, and is one of only two women to appear on this compilation. She is a guitarist blessed with a terrifying amount of technique and interpretive ability, and “Night After Sidewalk” is a gorgeous and quiet piece of still beauty which is for me easily the best track included here: a Picasso charcoal for sure. King is also young, and her presence and skill (and that of the similarly youthful Brad Barr) is excellent news for the future of this music.
There are only a couple tracks here that don’t quite please my ears like the rest. Harry Taussig’s “Dorian Sonata,” recorded in 1965 is, in fact, in the Dorian mode, but the piece doesn’t have enough motion or melodic interest to keep my attention. (Probably my ears are too used to this kind of selection, having heard dozens of similar pieces in the forty years since this one was penned.) Depending on my mood, I find myself either mildly interested or mildly irritated by Riley and Riley’s “La Cigale.” I feel the same about much of Terry Riley’s canon, so your mileage my vary. And whether or not “Imaginational Anthem” itself (in either version) appeals to me also depends on my mood. Although more structured than Barr’s “Bouba’s Bounce,” the intricate melodies sound in turn exciting or aimless, and the gestures it makes seem less remarkable in light of the other, newer, innovative music included here. Perhaps this too is an encouraging sign for the future.
Imaginational Anthem isn’t for everyone, but it is awfully good. Bringing together some of the finest acoustic recordings from the last half century, it makes a strong case that the genre is alive, well, and even thriving. Near Mint records plan to release more albums of this same ilk in the future, and I wish them the best of luck.Powered by Sidelines