Friday, January 25, 2013

Scrapomatic "Sidewalk Caesars" (4.5*)

The more things change, it is said, the more they stay the same. With two albums under their belt, both supervised by veteran producer John Snyder, the production credit on Scrapomatic’s third album goes to singer Mike Mattison and engineer/mixer Jeff Bakos. There’s also a change in the instrumental roster, with Mattison and guitarist/vocalist Paul Olsen joined by their regular road band (Dave Yoke on guitar, Ted Pecchio on bass and vocals and drummer Tyler Greenwell).

Apart from that it’s pretty much a case of business as usual. Olsen and Mattison continue to draw their inspiration from acoustic blues, throwing solid chunks of rustic folk, country, Southern rock, R&B and soul, swamp pop, gospel and even a dash of 80s punk into a musical stew that blends American musical traditions with twenty-first century overtones. Eclectic but focussed, diverse but almost seamlessly integrated, still based around Mattison’s gruff growl and Olsen’s guitar, but with added oomph from a regular road band.

There’s a bit of veering between the sacred and the profane hereabouts, from the spiritual overtones that set up He Called My Name which comes with a sanctified strut as Paul Olsen's guitar plays off Derek Trucks' understated slide through the good time down home two tempo ode to the Drink House to Killing Yourself On Purpose, a bluesy examination of the consequences of (over)consumption.

We’re talking blues roots filtered through a literary sensibility here, folks, with Mattison's grizzled vocal echoing some of the greats of the genre, veering over towards gospel territory for I Want the Truth, with uncharacteristically understated Derek Trucks slide back into the mix. There are hearty helpings of organic home cooked soul on Remember This Day and Long Gone and a more country feel atop a Stax-style groove as Olsen takes the vocal lead on Hook, Line and Sinker.

There’s a jaunty, peppy start to The Fire Next Time, with the old spiritual line about a bit less water next time around, and The Old Whiskey Show waltzes through three minutes of meditation on distillery-based philosophising, a theme that continues through Skip James’ Drunken Spree, fingerpicked and cakewalked into a jaunty bit of medicine show hokum.

Long-Haired State works heartfelt ballad territory, revisiting themes that Mattison and Olsen have been developing throughout the album, and I Just Wanna Hang Around With You, a Robert Hazard cover choogles through three minutes of punk-pop before Olsen winds things up with a warm scrapomatic "Sidewalk Caesars (4.5*)with subtle fretwork delivering an understated conclusion that may or may not be in keeping with the overall vibe that has run through everything that precedes it.

That final track is enough to point out that Olsen’s a substantial talent in his own right, and his guitar work throughout is solid (as is Dave Yoke’s) but it is, I think, inevitable that Mattison almost invariably ends up dominating the Scrapomatic landscape, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s something quite distinctive about his vocal chords, a malleable instrument with a remarkable range from a keening falsetto to a subterranean growl that can swoop effortlessly in either direction, and it’s not just range. The man manages to invoke a variety of tones and flavours that add light and shade to material that’s occasionally obtuse, veers between innocence and  feverish intensity, and blends disparate elements into an inimitable gumbo that draws on the spirit of the Delta blues and to focus on timeless themes.

While Mattison will inevitably cop the kudos it wouldn’t be the same without Olsen’s contribution to a classy expanded duo carving themselves a firm niche in what looks to be a very viable market in and around the Tedeschi-Trucks axis.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Graham Parker "The Up Escalator" (4*)

News of a new album by Graham Parker & The Rumour had me scanning the landscape around the end of November, once I'd spotted the odd reference to Three Chords Good on the interwebs. For some reason, however, it doesn't seem to have wormed its way into the iTunes Store, at least not into the Australian branch (though it’s already there in the US store) but then it took a while for that to happen with Little Feat's Rooster Rag, which explains why the review here features a photo of an actual CD jewel case rather than a shot of an iPad screen.

Despite the absence of Three Chords Good the search reminded me I really liked Mr Parker’s work back in the day, and there’s a swag of material that could well justify a bit of further exploration. Had they been there I might have started by going right back to Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment, but since they’re not this seemed to be the right place to pick up the thread.

Parker’s previous albums, the aforementioned duo, Stick to Me, The Parkerilla and Squeezing Out Sparks all featured The Rumour, a classy outfit whose members cut their teeth in pub rock bands Brinsley Schwarz and Bontemps Roulez and went on to back, apart from Parker, various pub rock and new wave acts including Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Garland Jeffreys and Carlene Carter.

While guitarists Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont were still on board, as were the rhythm section of Andrew Bodnar (bass) and Stephen Goulding (drums), keyboard player Bob Andrews had left the band in 1979, so when  the time came to cut The Up Escalator keyboard duties were handed to Nicky Hopkins (piano) and The E Street Band’s Danny Federici (organ).

From the start of No Holding Back on my first run through there was something missing, and the first thing to spring to mind was, of course, Andrews. There was a fairly trademark GP & The Rumour sound, and most of it was still there, so the first inclination was to look in obvious directions. I suspect the thought processes may have been influenced by recent exposure to Andrews’ recent solo efforts, Shotgun and Invisible Love, but subsequent run through (or should that be along?) The Up Escalator with the volume cranked substantially were much more satisfactory.

Squeezing Out Sparks had gone close to breaking Parker into the US market, so it must have made sense to Arista to do something that’d convert the breakthrough into major commercial success with the follow-up. On that basis it may have seemed like a good idea to match Parker and what remained of The Rumour with Jimmy Iovine, who’d produced or engineered Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedoes, Dire Straits' Making Movies and Springsteen's Born to Run, a sort of pairing that’d deliver critical acclaim and commercial success. Throw in some guest vocals from Springsteen and things should be close to signed, sealed and delivered.

Commercial and critical success are, on the other hand, rather tricky little beasts. For a start, when you’re seen to be positioning an artist for glory you’re also setting them up as a target for those who might have their own axes to grind. Parker & The Rumour had been sitting quietly on the periphery as far as popular success was concerned, attracting A and A+ ratings from the likes of Robert Christgau, the (self-proclaimed) Dean of American Rock Critics. Christgau reviews Sparks here and, interestingly, fails to note the existence of Escalator.

As things proceed through that first run through I was inclined to agree with assessments that panned the material and described the sound as flat, poorly detailed, mushy and just a bit dull but again, with a substantial crank in volume they sounded a whole lot better. Definitely not as good as you’d like, but definitely better. Play the bugger loud.

And volume doesn’t just add punch to the music. Lyrically, The Up Escalator delivers another solid bracket of vitriolic Parker rants against conformity and associated mind-numbing and dumbing down (Devil's Sidewalk and Stupefaction) and  everyone who has questioned his abilities and denied him his just rewards and then want him to fill in the gaps in their Empty Lives.

You could pick a similar source of righteous anger in any of the other tracks. The loveless bastards who’d want to drown out The Beating Of Another Heart, the pull of obsessions and the denial of ambitions through the Endless Night, ineffective responses to demands and unexpected circumstances in Paralyzed and Manoeuvres. He might want to express love for a new bride in Jolie Jolie, but even that comes across as paranoid and can’t be expressed without an and don’t you forget it. You can’t, in the words of the last title on the album, have Love Without Greed, or maybe lust without emotional imperialism.

The bonus tracks, a vehement Women in Charge that suggests he’s got his tongue firmly in cheek when he suggests this is a fortunate development. A live reggaefied reworking of Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions mightn’t burn with the same incendiary passion of the Parkerilla version, but it isn’t exactly lacking in bite either.

Putting everything together, and accepting that it’s no Squeezing Out Sparks (which is fair enough from where I’m sitting, neither is anything else in his discography) played at a decent volume it’s not that bad.

I’m inclined to dismiss the contemporary critical response as a case of expectations set that were never likely to be filled, the sort of thing that happens when our little secret positions himself (or is positioned, same horse different jockey) for a shot at mainstream mass market success. A case, I suspect, of you can do it, but when you try, you’d better make sure the product really delivers, sonny Jim. The Up Escalator didn’t quite deliver at that level, and mightn’t have quite made it to the top of what might have been possible, but it’s not broken down in the basement either.

Talking Heads "Little Creatures" (4.5*)

By rights I should be heading back to Talking Heads 1977 to begin a re-examination of a band that largely passed by without my paying a great deal of attention, but $8.99 for the sixth album by Talking Heads is one of those things that tend to throw logical sequencing out of whack.

Eight years on and five albums under their belt, David Byrne and associates appear to have had enough of living the edge and turned their heads towards a poppier sound rather than another excursion into the quirks of the avant-garde. The result was, by all accounts, the band's best-selling studio effort, with over two million copies sold in the US and enough tracks that gained some sort of exposure to have someone who wasn’t paying much attention to the mainstream media nodding his head in vaguely remembered recognition on the first couple of runs through the album.

What I ended up with is the 2005 re-release, remastered with the seemingly obligatory bonus tracks (early versions of Road To Nowhere and And She Was, extended mix of Television Man) where the core Talking Heads quartet (David Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison on keyboards and Tina Weymouth) get some assistance from session players, but it’s a stripped back, skeletal Heads without the Brian Eno production and the likes of Adrian Belew and Bernie Worrell beefing up the instrumental quotient.

Where preceding albums had been exploring the fringes, incorporating avant-garde ethnomusicological flourishes, this time around Byrne has retreated to as close to ordinary pop structures as he was ever likely to get, something that’s obvious from the bouncy beginning to And She Was, three and a half minutes of boppy R&B-inflected nonsense. Probably deep and meaningless, but there’s a catchy melody and a great chorus that’ll get everyone bar the most reluctant tapping the toes.

There’s some tight ensemble work on the group-written Give Me Back My Name, which sounds remarkably like The Go-Betweens, while Creatures of Love celebrates simple pleasures, concluding that sex is all right since It makes those little creatures come to life. What’s more he seems like he means it, rather than offering some sort of wry facetious observation.

The Lady Don't Mind and Perfect World continue that vibe, and if the babysitter or whoever’s the protagonist in Stay Up Late wants to make him stay up all night, that’s a reaction to cuteness and charm rather than a quest for revenge. Walk It Down funks itself along quite happily, while Television Man plonks Byrne down in the living room with the idiot box operating, though we’re just good friends and the jungle call and response bit suggests things may not quite be the way they seem.

But they’ve saved the best till last. If Television Man delivers an impression of suburban normality (that’s how the story ends) Road to Nowhere delivers an assessment that’s best summed up in one of the early lines in the song (the future is certain/we just need to work it out) and if we’re not actually bound for anywhere significant don’t worry too much because at least we’ll have company along the way and may well be able to amuse ourselves along the way.

With the benefit of close to thirty years worth of hindsight you could possibly argue that the album represents a deliberate retreat from avant-garde eccentricity, attempting to grab a piece of the action in the mainstream after the experimentation that established the band’s reputation, but that, I think, is creating a rather elaborate construction out of something that seems to have a rather straightforward explanation.

You can only work with the material you have to hand, and you clothe it in the most appropriate apparel. Byrne, for whatever reason, started writing material that was more straightforward and the result might seem like a straightforward catchy pop album, but it’s the work of people who knew what they were doing and the main point is that, quite simply, it works.

And from here, I guess, it’s back to ‘77...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Derek Trucks Band "The Derek Trucks Band" (4.5*)

Hearing The Derek Trucks Band was recorded in 1996, when the leader was all of seventeen, you mightn't be expecting something this impressive but Derek had, by that time, been playing professionally and semi-professionally for six years. He'd had bassist Todd Smallie on board since '94, drummer Yonrico Scott since '95 and singer/keyboards player Bill McKay had been around for a while as well, so we're talking a debut recording by a seasoned outfit, regardless of the leader's relative youth.

Recorded around a year before the album's release in October 1997 the album certainly isn't lacking as far as aspiration is concerned. Out of a dozen tracks, eight might be original compositions but there are also a couple of fairly ambitious covers in the form of John Coltrane's Mr. P.C. and Naima, Miles Davis' So What and Wayne Shorter's Footprints.

Thirty-five seconds of Sarod (Trucks playing the Indian instrument) leads straight into a blistering, turn on a pin reading of Mr. P.C. that’ll be familiar territory to anyone familiar with Derek’s later work. Suffice it to say he had his chops more or less down back this far and has spent the intervening period honing and polishing. Gary Gazaway contributes a horn part to 555 Lake that punctuates a warm vocal (in fact the album’s only vocal) from Bill McKay and there’s some fine ensemble playing on D Minor Blues and #6 Dance.

Things get ambitious with the covers of Footprints, Naima and So What with the group composition Out of Madness (Scott/Smallie/Trucks) thrown in between the first two to break things up and, impressively those ambitious covers come across as pretty much of a piece with what had preceded them, as well as the Evil Clown and Egg 15 that follow. Forty-one seconds of Sarod Outro brings a rather remarkable debut to a close.

Whether or not Derek Trucks is (as has been hypothesised by, among others Gregg Allman) the reincarnation of Duane Allman there’s no doubt he was, right from the very earliest stages of his career, ploughing a row very similar to the one Duane might well have chosen himself, aided by a flawless rhythm section capable of turn on a pinhead precision. Given the time lapse since the album came out, and given exposure to subsequent work, your jaw mightn’t drop quite as far as it would have if you’d heard this back in the day, but it’s a classic recording that’s thoroughly worth investigating.

Neil Young with Crazy Horse "Psychedelic Pill" (4.5*)

There's a pair of chicken and the egg statements that spring to mind when you're looking at something like the Neil Young with Crazy Horse album they've decided to label Psychedelic Pill.

Which came first?

Did consumers stop listening to albums all the way through in sequence because artists have stopped making grand artistic statements that hang together seamlessly?

Or did artists stop making grand artistic statements that hang together seamlessly because listeners stopped listening to albums all the way through?

Anyone who's read Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace will have no doubt about where Neil stands on the matter. We're supposed to listen all the way through, which is fine up to a point, and that point comes when you decide there are things hereabouts that justify employing the old shuffle button.

Actually, when it comes to recent Neil activities you probably need to link Waging Heavy Peace, Americana and Psychedelic Pill because they're all part of the same process. Different aspects of that process, but they're definitely interlinked. The book, of course, came first, and we've already had a look at Americana here, but now it's time to look at Psychedelic Pill and we need to think about the links a bit.

Looking at Americana, I remarked: Regardless of how prolific you are, sitting down to write a book (Waging Heavy Peace, apparently semi-autobiographical, due out later this year) the effort’s possibly going to steer you away from writing songs and while you’re thinking about the past you’re going to remember things you were doing back when you were starting out in the early sixties.

There's an additional factor revealed in the pages of Waging Heavy Peace which appears to have some bearing on Psychedelic Pill. The book, Americana and the new album are all the work of a clean and sober Young who's eschewed the use of marijuana and alcohol, apparently on medical advice.

You might be inclined to question whether this matters at all, and for most of us it probably doesn't. As far as Neil's concerned it probably doesn't either, but where these things are mentioned in the book he's not sure about song writing without the altered consciousness or chemical enhancement because it's been a while since he's written a song.

So we seem to have a book in the process, and the process had reached a point where he could switch his focus towards different projects, which seems to have been the point where he started thinking in terms of Crazy Horse again. With the Horse back in the stable they need something new to play, and the WHP manuscript has had Neil thinking back to his days on the road across the prairies with his early band (The Squires). You're thinking about that stuff, you need something to work on with the Horse, so you head back to that material. Fine. There's a certain amount of logic there.

With Americana in the can the songs apparently start to flow, and that delivered most of the material here. Given the fact that Neil had a number of matters that were occupying his attention you're hardly going to be surprised to see them turn up again.

We're talking about a man who'll wander away from his tour bus, as described at the beginning of Nick Kent's article Neil Young and the Haphazard Highway, leaving instructions to the driver to pick him up a few miles down the road, visualise something that fits the vibe of the landscape he's walking through and turn it into something anthemic in the genre that has currently caught his attention.

The problem, of course, lies in Neil's tendency to channel whatever vibe he's into, and proceed without the intervention of an editing force. That means if you’re into concise statements you’ll be steering clear of the opening Driftin' Back here.

Actually, if you’re into concise statements you’ll be steering clear of Waging Heavy Peace as well.

Driftin' Back is, to a large extent, symptomatic of the whole of the sprawling double CD statement, and your reaction to the track will probably define your attitude to what follows the twenty-seven and a half minutes. For a start the Hey now now, hey now now chorus makes for a substantial, and quite effective ear-worm.

I’ve been trying to get the thing out of my head for days, but, on the other hand, the grumpy old man trying to find inner tranquility while everything around him needles his consciousness gets your goat after two or three hearings. Having read WHP you know where he stands on his new format for high quality digital music and the rest of his critique of spirituality, MTV, contemporary listening habits, the degradation of sound quality in recorded music (when you hear my song you only get 5 percent, you used to get it all) and the reduction of Picasso’s art to digital wallpaper hardly comes as a surprise.

The band speeds up and slows down, ebbs and flows, locks together and drifts apart as Young scatters verses across the landscape, filling the rest of the terrain with swathes of guitar like you haven’t heard since, well, the previous NY/CH recoding.

There are two takes on Psychedelic Pill, which comes across as daughter of Cinnamon Girl, the first phased to within an inch of its life, and the second, more straightforward reading closes the double album. Apart from the CG Revisited bit, there’s a healthy serve of Dirty Old Man in there as well. Strangely, given the time differential between its 3:28 and 3:13, it doesn’t work nearly as well as the preceding half hour of Drifting Back, though the phasing definitely brings back memories...

But the marathons resume with close to seventeen minutes of roughhewn guitar on Ramada Inn, a clear-eyed and coherent not quite eulogy for a long-term relationship now that the kids have grown up and flown the nest. It’s Greendale-style storytelling, uncharacteristically focussed as Young looks at the sacrifices it takes to keep things afloat, more than a quarter of an hour of shimmering sentiment and melancholy analysis conducted in the temporary shelter of a motel room against an alcoholic background. Gut wrenching, epic, and arguably as good as anything he’s done in forty-plus years.

Born In Ontario closes the first disk with a trip down memory lane, cousin of Homegrown in much the same way that the title track reflects past glories. It’s a paean to his birthplace and his Canadian heritage while acknowledging the good fortune he’s experienced since leaving the prairies behind. It rocks along nicely, offering much needed light and shade after Ramada Inn, and if there’s a track hereabouts that’s suited to high rotation on the radio this, rather than the title track, is it.

Or maybe it’s Twisted Road‘s recount of Young’s early encounters with the music his heroes—Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and the Grateful Dead—produced in their heyday, with Dylan’s lyrics rollin' off his tongue/Like Hank Williams chewin' bubble gum. Let’s just leave it at lightweight, shall we?

She's Always Dancing repeats Driftin’ Back’s acapella intro > thudding Horse jam treatment and seems to reprise the title track’s pill-popping bopper for around eight and a half minutes of riffing between vocal choruses. Tight harmonies, trademark Neil guitar, it’s pleasant enough, but on an album that includes something like Ramada Inn most other tracks are going to pale by comparison.

Continuing a long held Neil tradition, For The Love Of Man brings out a song that’s been around for years (as in Silver and Gold, Ordinary People and Hitchhiker) and provides a welcome change of pace with a comforting ballad and a lyric that pays tribute to Young’s severely handicapped son Ben.

Which brings us to the album’s other major set piece, the monstrous (and I use the term deliberately) Walk Like A Giant. According to film maker Johnathan Demme the central used to feel like a giant, and now I feel like a leaf floating in the stream image stems from Neil’s 2005 aneurysm, and the rest of the lyrics fit comfortably into that retrospective feel that pervades the rest of the double album, but there’s an interesting contrast between the jaunty whistled hook and Young’s raging reflection on his (sorry, our) generation’s failure to change the world, which was what we thought we were out to do some forty-five years ago.

Around ten minutes in, Young lets the giant out of the box in savage swathes of white noise lashing the landscape much, you imagine, as a deranged Tyrannosaurus Rex might have done back in the days when there were, literally, giants walking the earth, savage squalls of noise stomping across a landscape that’s 100% Crazy Horse territory.

After that, I guess, anything’s going to be a let down, so perhaps one shouldn’t be too harsh as far as Psychedelic Pill (Alternate Mix) is concerned, but if its sister seemed inconsequential wedged between Driftin’ Back and Ramada Inn, the alternate version definitely comes across as lightweight after Walk Like a Giant.

And if you do the stats, eight tracks (nine if you count the alternate mix as a separate entity) with three definite keepers (two and a half if you’re not totally besotted by the whole of Driftin’ Back) that occupy two-thirds of the ninety-odd minutes is a much better strike rate than you might have anticipated looking back over some of Neil’s recent first thought is best thought efforts.

Very much in the whatever’s occupying Neil’s mind tradition of Fork in the Road, but with added Horse.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Various Artists "Tumbélé! Biguine, Afro and Latin Sounds From the French Caribbean, 1963-1974" (4.5*)

Sling the words Caribbean, West Indies and music together and your thoughts will, more than likely, head straight towards the reggae end of the spectrum, maybe with a passing thought of Cuba, Latin rhythms and the Buena Vista Social Club and possibly crossing to the shores of South America and Trinidadian calypso.

I guess that’s a natural reaction in the English-speaking world, where West Indian equates to reggae, calypso, cricket and rum, but we tend to forget there were other European nationalities that headed across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, and it might come as some surprise to learn how diverse the islands are, at least in terms of colonial dominance.

We think English and Spanish, possibly French, but we tend to ignore or forget the presence of the Dutch and the fact that the Virgin Islands were, at one time Danish and Norwegian colonies (the Danes sold them to the United States in 1916). That interest dates back to the middle of the seventeenth century, a time when the Swedes had North American colonies in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and Caribbean interests. The Swedes also controlled the island of Saint Barthélemy in the Leeward Islands between 1784 and 1878.

Geographically (and there’s a point to all this rambling, don’t panic) the West Indian islands can be divided into two main groups, the Greater and Lesser Antilles, with a couple of extra groups covering the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands (the Lucayan archipelago) and the Leeward Antilles, Dutch colonies off the coast of Venezuela.

The Greater Antilles covers the big islands, namely Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti, the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico with the Cayman islands just thrown in to confuse matters. Think standard forms of Caribbean music and that’s largely where it comes from. Figures. Big islands tend to have big populations and get the chance to develop their own music industry with their own individual styles, which is more or less what happened with ska, bluebeat and reggae in Jamaica.

Things are much more confused, and subsequently diverse in the smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles, covering the Leeward Islands (assorted United States, British, French and Dutch possessions and a couple of independent former British colonies) east of the Greater Antilles and the Windward Islands (largely independent former British colonies and the French island of Martinique) stretching down to Trinidad just off the South American coast.

What we’re looking at here comes from Guadeloupe (at the eastern end of the Leewards) and Martinique (Windwards). They’re not all that far apart, separated by the former British colony of Dominica. Interestingly, the two islands are overseas departements of France, first colonised by France in 1635 and literally, as a part of France, members of the EU that use the Euro. Put that way and it all sounds a bit white bread, but given the Caribbean confluence you’re in for African and Latin influences on Haitian, Congolese and Puerto Rican rhythms and the local biguine style that ruled the airwaves and dance floors of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the 1960s thrown into the mix.

Listing those elements you can start from gwo ka and bélé, the drum and vocal call-and-response traditional styles of Guadeloupe and Martinique, reflecting the islands' history of slavery and forced migration. The lilting biguine is more urbane, a synthesis of bélé rhythms and brass-led polka from Martinique with ties to le hot jazz from Paris. Throw in some Congolese rumba, Cuban and Haitian rhythms, Trinidadian calypso, American and French hot jazz, and you’ve got an imaginative combination that makes for interesting listening.

Not that you’re going to hear anything that’s too familiar, or recognize names like Barel Coppet et Mister Lof, whose Jeunesse Vauclin gets things off to a lively start, followed by Haiti's Les Loups Noirs’ Jet Biguine, complete with psych-out jet effects. Apart from recording in Martinique Les Loups Noirs apparently spent much of their time travelling between Haitian communities in, among other places, New York and Toronto, as well as throughout the Caribbean.

You could probably come up with equally intriguing stories if you delved deep enough, and spend any amount of time trying to figure out the influences on tracks like Abel Zéno’s Pas O Soué  La, Raphaël Zachille’s Manzé Mona or the Robert Mavounsy Quartet’s Henri Te Vlé Mayé but in an environment where Hughesy’s vaguely-remembered High School French isn’t enough to translate the titles I’m inclined to sit back and enjoy the grooves instead.

La Vie Critique by L’Orchestre Jeunesse de Paul-Emile Haliar might translate as The Critical Life, but doesn’t sound like a nitpicker in action, while Orchestre Combo Zombi et Michel Yéyé’s Mussieu A Têt’a Poisson La has something to do with fish, though I’m not sure about the shape or form.

I was tempted to come up with equally vague remarks about the rest of the album’s diverse array of styles and buoyant bounce but, in the long run, decided Tumbélé is something to be enjoyed rather than analysed.

That’s my excuse, anyway.

The sounds on this particular album sit on the fringes of familiarity, but there’s an exoticism that suggests a flow of people, cultures and traditions, backwards and forwards between metropolitan France, the Caribbean colonies and their neighbours and the African sources that drove so much of the music that came out of the Americas.  Forget classifications and generic definitions, this exotic concoction of French, African, Calypso, Latin and assorted local flavours is bound to add more than a desh of interest to a playlist, and I’m definitely looking for more.

I have a sneaky feeling I'll be taking a good long look at the catalogue over at Soundway Records. The difficult part is going to lie in deciding where to start.

Track listing:

Jeunesse Vauclin – Barel Coppet et Mister Lof

Jet Biguine – Les Loups Noirs D’Haïti

Pas O Soué  La – Abel Zénon

Manzé Mona – Raphaël Zachille

Henri Te Vlé Mayé – Robert Mavounsy Quartet

La Vie Critique – L’Orchestre Jeunesse de Paul-Emile Haliar

Mussieu A Têt’a Poisson La – Orchestre Combo Zombi et Michel Yéyé

Oriza – Les Kings

Colas-la – Claude Rolcin et Le West Indian Combo

Ti Fi La Ou Té Madam’ – Anzala, Dolor, Vélo

D’Leau Coco – Les Leopards

Jojo – Ensemble La Perfecta

Dima Bolane – Le Ry-co Jazz

Edamise Oh! – Lola Martin

Chombo Meringue – Les Aiglons de Basse Terre

Son Tambou La – Les Gentlemens

Chonga – L’Ensemble Abricot

Fileo – Francisco

Panty – Monsieur Dolor et Les Guitar Boys

Jean Fouillé, Pie Fouillé – Robert Loison

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Townes van Zandt "Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas" (4.5*)

First released in 1977, and intermittently in and out of print thereafter, Live at the Old Quarter delivers twenty-six of Townes van Zandt’s best songs, drawn from a five-night solo residency in July 1973 at a tiny Texas venue that could comfortably seat sixty, though according to legend over a hundred jammed into the room on the nights these recordings were made.

Judging by the introduction, we’re talking the last night of the run in a two-storey building (everything, it seems, is upstairs) that apparently drew a mixed clientele of skid row bums, hippies, and tidy professional people, a neighbourhood bar where you’d reckon the ambient noise would kill any chance of a decent recording. They were, after all close to double the notional/legal capacity of the bar.

The result, however, is almost crystal clear, with just enough happening on the edges to remind you that, yes, this is a live recording and underlining the apparent fact that a man and a guitar, a set of mostly immaculately written songs and a joke or two in between can hold an audience spellbound.

You might look at it and figure the bloke’s got rocks in his head to lead off with what’s arguably his best-known song (Pancho and Lefty) and following it with Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold but from that opening one-two punch he doesn’t let it slip.

On the other hand, to the average listener, Poncho might be about the only track they’d be likely to recognise, apart from the cover of Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love? so it’s sort of a case of that’s a damn fine song and these are damn fine songs too.

Lyrically, the songs are pretty dense, hardly the epitome of verbal economy, but there’s a precision there as well. Yes, they’re wordy, but they’re only as wordy as they need to be, and they’re delivered in a manner that commands your attention, which is obviously what happened in a crowded two-storey building close to forty years ago.

I was pointed towards this album by a discussion about great songwriters over on the not entirely Neil Young-centric Rust mailing list, where a comment from a bloke who seemed to have reasonable taste suggested this was either the best of Townes’ albums, or the pick of the live ones.

As a relative newbie I’m not in a position to comment on either suggestion, but can’t help thinking the man’s better in a live setting than stuck away in a studio. The writing is excellent, it’s relatively early in his career, so issues with alcohol and drugs haven’t kicked in to the extent they did later on (that much seems obvious from the performances here aligned against the man’s legend) and there’s a crisp clarity to the recording that gives you the I’m right there feeling.

There may be better Townes van Zandt live albums, and if there are I want to hear them. In the meantime this will do very nicely, thank you.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Jenny & Johnny "I’m Having Fun Now" (4*)

As someone who spent his teenage years living through the sixties heyday of AM pop radio, I’ve always reckoned I could spot a classy piece of pop music, and to me the best part of the late seventies New Wave/Punk Rock era was the surge of Power Pop that brought us the likes of Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds.

That’s why I’m a sucker for something like this effort from ex-Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis and boyfriend Johnathon Rice. From the jangly garage rock banter of Scissor Runner  through three and a half minutes of to and fro accusations and professional jealousy in My Pet Snakes the two voices trade lines, weave in and out of each other and generally sound like the album title is an accurate description of the contents.

Things slow down slightly for Switchblade, though the luscious harmonies stay right where they’ve been to date, and when the tempo lifts again Big Wave might sound like we’re talking California surf, but it’s actually about the state’s (and, I guess, the world’s) economic crisis (We’re spending what we haven’t made). Not the sort of topic you’d associate with surging choruses and chiming surf-derived guitar.

Following straight on, While Men Are Dreaming isn’t quite a lullaby, but resides in a nearby postcode and drops the tempo rather sharply, while Animal  lifts things back into bop along territory, and there’s a feel good singalong feel to Just Like Zeus and New Yorker Cartoon (not, you’d have thought, a topic that’d fit in with the Jenny & Johnny generation).

From there, it’s more or less a case of keeping things going along the same lines. Straight Edge of the Blade bops along nicely, the tempo drops for Slavedriver though the elements that have been on display throughout turn up again.

Things kick up nicely for Committed, and while you might hesitate before affirming your allegiance For God and for Country / For Michael Jackson’s Monkey it’s a catchy end to an album that contains its share of wisecracks and lyrical quirks. It’s largely upbeat, casts a backward glance towards folk-rock and California pop and definitely lives up to the title.

It’s not all sweetness and light when you dig under the sunny and exuberant surface, but as an exercise in retro lo-fi pop, it works very nicely.

Dr John "City That Care Forgot" (4*)

There are some artists you naturally associate with a particular city, venue or other environment, but I can’t think of any that spring to mind as naturally as Dr John and New Orleans. As a teenage session muso in the late 50s, Mac Rebennack was an integral part of a scene he had to get out of due to issues with the law in the mid-60s and when he needed an avenue to provide a gig for assorted transplanted Crescent City music identities based in Los Angeles in the late sixties, the city and its traditions provided the basis for the Dr John persona that has provided him with an ongoing forty-plus year career.

Over that time he hasn’t always lived there, but he’s maintained a constant liaison with the city and its music, even when venturing off onto tangents involving Duke Ellington or Johnny Mercer. Given those ongoing links you wouldn’t be surprised by the tone of 2008’s City That Care Forgot.

Looking back over an extensive discography that’s dominated by Louisiana fonk, even the most ardent fan would have to agree that he’s been hit and miss and the average fan’s mileage is likely to vary with the amount of perceived effort that’s gone into the session. There’s almost invariably something of interest somewhere on a Dr John album, but the strongest material tends to come when he’s got a particular bee in his bonnet (Gumbo, Goin’ Back to New Orleans) or a particularly strong collaborator (In the Right Place). The City That Care Forgot delivers both.

Given the events that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, of course, it’d be difficult not to have a bee in your bonnet, but from the start of Keep On Goin' to the end of Save Our Wetlands there’s a strong slow-burning anger that delivers what is arguably his strongest collection of original material.

As anyone who’s been through a natural disaster would know, as you set about trying to get over the destruction, there’s only one thing you can do, and that’s to Keep On Goin' and the album kicks off with a low key funky starter in a situation where you could well be tempted to come out swinging right from the start.

He doesn’t, however, take too long to focus on his targets. It’s not the destruction itself that’s got him riled, it’s the lack of environmental concern and responsibility and a need for corporations and government be held to account, and Time For A Change makes no bones about it over a rolling R&B groove with crisp horns and guitar work from Eric Clapton to underline the message.

And when you’re looking for those responsible, head straight to the top of the tree. The road to the White House is paved with lies is the first line in Promises, Promises as the Doctor and Willie Nelson take alternate verses attacking the administration and the cronies who lined their pockets in the wake of disaster.

Life is a near-death experience is the opening line of You Might Be Surprised, just under four minutes of ballad in an R&B vein that espouses the power of positive thinking. All you gotta do is want it bad enough and you just might be able to take action and the repetitive cycle of disaster and corruption that characterises the history of the Crescent City.

The five minutes of Dream Warrior rails against the injustices that followed in the wake of Katrina and the hypocrisy that meant the city was still more or less in ruins three years after the storm. It’s the same passion that burns through the first two series of Treme, and the reason for the continued neglect comes through in Black Gold, a denunciation of the Iraq War and America's dependence on oil and the coverup that followed the Gulf oil spill.

The state of post-storm New Orleans is again the theme in We Gettin' There, with moody trumpet from Terence Blanchard, and if it seems everything’s hunky dory down there, the chorus sets things rather straighter. And if ya wonder how we doin', short version is we gettin' there, and if you wonder how we doin', is we gettin' mad.

What was there before and who was responsible for its disappearance delivers the theme for the next three tracks. Stripped Away tackles the cleansing role of the floods that washed away the rot and decay of the old city and that will, hopefully, be reborn eventually, but Say Whut? balances the picture. It’s a four and a half minute demand that somebody be held to account for the crime, tragedy and devastation that should have been avoided, and speaking of things that need fixing My People Need A Second Line looks at the traditional New Orleans funeral procession that’s being regulated and harassed out of existence as the new wave of carpetbaggers look to profit from the city's culture while doing away with the influences that shaped it.

That, of course, is all part of the Land Grab, with Terence Blanchard’s trumpet featuring again as the Doctor’s vocals nail the issues involved with disappearing neighbourhoods, and opportunistic developers looking for a quick buck through gentrification. An Ani DiFranco backing vocal underpins City That Care Forgot while the lead vocal's gruff denunciation enumerates his disillusion with the fact that an area where music and laughter once filled the air has been drastically changed by politicians and profiteers. The album concludes with environmental pleas to Save Our Wetlands and protect Mother Earth, themes that don’t just apply to New Orleans.

He mightn’t have been there when Katrina struck, but given the fact that the disaster has provided plenty to become agitated about it’s hardly surprising to find the Doctor inclined to rant about mistreatment and failure to deliver.

Overtly political? Possibly, but given the magnitude of the issues and the dissatisfaction produced anything less than fervent vitriol and pointed comment really isn’t going to cut it.

File under: Trademark New Orleans musical gumbo seasoned with righteous indignation.

Lil' Band O' Gold "The Promised Land" (4*)

An Australia-only release that provides a soundtrack to a documentary of the same name, The Promised Land delivers a classy collection of tunes that could, generically, be labelled swamp pop, though there are some who might be scratching the old noggin at the inclusion of a cover of ELO’s Hold On Tight as one of the album’s fourteen tracks.

Well, you would if you were looking for something that could be slotted into a generic classification as Cajun or Zydeco or whatever, but when you’re talking swamp pop you’re not exactly operating in clearly defined territory. What you’re getting once you head off into swamp pop is, according to Rick Koster’s Louisiana Music, a hybrid that evolved in the early-to-mid fifties at a time when the young folks in ... southwest Louisiana ... were itching to Americanize the French-speaking culture of their parents and grandparents. So you’re looking, in other words, at traditional Cajun (French-speaking white) and Creole (French-speaking black) forms filtered through a rock’n’roll and R&B sensitivity to produce slow dancers or fevered high energy jumping jive.

Alternatively, Lafayette swamp popper Gene Terry is quoted in the documentary The Promised Land soundtracks describes it as white guys playing black music damn good. You’ll find Terry written up in Louisiana Music a couple of pages after Lil' Band O' Gold’s drummer (the Godfather of Swamp Pop) right before Johnnie Allen, who gave us the swamp-pop arrangement of Chuck Berry’s The Promised Land that was one of the highlights of a compilation album called Another Saturday Night. If you’re watching that clip I’d point out that today Johnnie Allan is a retired teacher and principal!

Singer/guitarist C.C. Adcock and singer/accordionist Steve Riley (Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys) came up with the idea for Lil' Band O' Gold over pork chop sandwiches at a Creole restaurant in Lafayette in 1998, and the band’s main gig seems to be a Monday night jam at the Swampwater Saloon in Lafayette,so we’re talking an outfit comprised of players whose main gig lies elsewhere and gets together to have some fun. Judging by The Promised Land, they’ve succeeded.

Drummer Warren Storm’s CV includes gigs with Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, and Lightnin' Slim in the '50s, session work with Freddy Fender and John Fogerty and a string of local hits under his own name, singer/pianist and songwriter David Egan has had songs recorded by Percy Sledge, Joe Cocker, and Irma Thomas and bassist Dave Ranson has regular gigs with John Hiatt and Sonny Landreth. There’s also a three-piece horn section, comprising Dickie Landry (Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, and Philip Glass), David Greely (Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys) and Pat Breaux (Beausoliel) and pedal-steel guitarist Richard Comeaux to round out the nine-piece outfit.

From the opening of Spoonbread to the end of So Long you’re not going to hear anything new, and anyone with anything beyond a nodding acquaintance with the music that has emerged from southwest Louisiana over the years will find much that contains familiar echoes.

You might be inclined to go further than describing what’s on offer here as familiar echoes, but we’re talking a revival of a tradition and a desire to revisit the honky tonk environment in from which that tradition emerged, so what might be described as plagiarism in another environment works here as something cut from the same cloth, the way the great Delta blues players borrowed from each other and drew on similar strands of shared experience and influences in common.

You’re not going to hear anything startlingly original, but if you’re after something that goes well with beer, good company and seafood on the barbeque this cross-pollination of Cajun folk, pedal steel powered country and R&B might be right up your alley.

Jeff Lang "Carried In Mind" (4.5*)

Saying something like here’s another Jeff Lang album that’s everything the long time listener would expect might sound rather like damning the album with faint praise, but right from the beginning of Running By The Rock all the regular elements are there in abundance. Impassioned vocal, furious supercharged slide guitar that’s sitting on the theoretically improbable but in Lang’s case close to inevitable margin between virtuoso and gutbucket, and it stays in that sort of territory right the way through to Way Past Midnight.

Some of the elements change from recording to recording. Here, he’s integrated Garrett Costigan on pedal steel alongside his regular rhythm section of Danny McKenna (drums) and Grant Cummerford (bass). You’ll also, invariably, get some light and shade, and after the fury of Running By The Rock the pedal steel comes to the fore in the is reflective and restrained I'm Barely There.

Fisherman's Farewell, co-written with his wife Alison Ferrier, who also contributes harmonies, works as a minimalist showcase for Lang’s guitar chops, with moodily atmospheric burbling underpinning the vocal and the tone gets a tad heavier for Towards Love with Lang delivering Neil Young-style fuzz while Costigan’s pedal steel hovers above.

Costigan’s moody contributions are there again in Mama, Why You Holding Back Now? which taps into darker emotions surrounding domestic violence and emotional blackmail before a minute and a bit of eerie san xian (Chinese lute) in an instrumental You Never Know Who's Listening and the traditional Jack-A-Roe, which Lang first heard on Dylan's World Gone Wrong, a track that sits comfortably beside Lang’s sparse but very traditional sounding tale of rape and murder on Newbridge, a prime piece of what Lang would describe as Disturbed Folk.

Or rather, it would if there wasn’t an intriguing cross between Little Richard and AC/DC on Frightened Fool, a little rocker with an earworm chorus that mightn’t quite be up there with awopbopaloobopalopbamboom but isn’t that far off it in between the two. The track would be good fun if it wasn’t for the violence that underlies the lyrics. As it is, it serves to give a little bit of light relief in between Jack-A-Roe and the very chilling Newbridge.

The album closes with a fatherly lullaby in Way Past Midnight and the whole, cut live (eyeball to eyeball in the man’s own words) in Lang’s own studio onto 8-track analogue tape is very much another Jeff Lang album that’s everything the long time listener would expect. Lang has been working this vein of traditional-sounding song reworked and reinvented for so long, pushing his own envelope so consistently as he seeks to add further variations to his extensive bag of tricks that his latest collection of disturbed folk is guaranteed to provide an intriguing listen that will reward frequent replays.

Bob Andrews "Shotgun" (4.5*)

As someone with a long term interest in The Rumour, Graham Parker’s one-time backing band (their three albums on their own, Max, Frogs Sprouts Clogs and Krauts and Purity Of Essence occupy a significant place in Hughesy’s list of criminally underrated albums) who also worked as the Stiff Records house band I really should have done a better job of following the individual members of a mighty fine outfit over the thirty years since they broke up in 1981.

Keyboard player Bob Andrews was the first to fly the coop, splitting in 1979 and subsequently absent from Purity Of Essence and has gone on to play on over a thousand recordings with engineering and production credits for more than fifty artists, facts I was totally unaware of until a review of this album on the Burning Wood blog had me rocking over to iTunes to grab a copy.

Twenty years ago he ended up settling in New Orleans, and has, by all accounts, become a fixture in the Crescent City music scene with a regular gig at Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar at 5535 Tchoupitoulas Street, frequent appearances on the local community radio station (WWOZ)and at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He has, along the way, acted as a side man for, among others, John Mooney, Jumpin' Johnny Sansone and Marva Wright and played several gigs with Allen Toussaint.

This album, inspired by a book of the same name about the unique shotgun architecture of New Orleans, Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, isn’t quite the New Orleans extravaganza you might expect, although it does feature its share of New Orleans identities. Apart from Hughesy’s recent new favourite Alex McMurray on guitar, and Johnny Sansone on harmonica there’s one of Jon Cleary's Absolute Monster Gentlemen (Cornell Williams) on bass, the New Orleans Blues Department’s Red Priest on guitar, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’ s Jermal Watson on drums and up and coming saxophonist Calvin Johnson. Andrews handles keyboard and vocal duties, and contributes some guitar for good measure.

So, what’s it all about?

You’re looking, believe it or not, at a musical rendering of the adventures of Guzzard and Mr. Poo, New Orleans lyricist/author and healthcare consultant Robin Hunn’s black Labradors. The illustrated book sets the song lyrics that recount two dogs’ antics beside photographs of the Marigny and Bywater neighbourhoods with additional graphic elements from Atom Davis.

Hunn, who formed a company (RKR-CB Productions) to promote New Orleans music and help musicians delivered the set of lyrics to Andrews, who came up with the tunes, and came up with the photographs. The saga of Guzzard and Mr. Poo will continue with another book/CD combo, Invisible Love, described as edgier and more adventurous

Musically, the eleven tracks deliver a tasty fusion of Andrews’ Brinsley Schwarz and The Rumour pub rock roots and New Orleans blues and funk, deliberately looking to put the musicians in places they don’t normally go.

The title track kicks things off nicely with a Brinsley Schwarz groove, which then falls comfortably into a bit of salacious funk on Man In The Man Position and additional raunch included on Put Out or Shut Up (no explanations necessary there, folks). That’s also the case with I Knew It Was Wrong But I Did It Anyway though it’s not immediately evident we’re talking canine rather than human misbehaviour. Black Alligators mines a a dirty little New Orleans groove with tasty harp from Johnny Sansone, while Local Lover, Doghouse, Entitled to Love and Hit Me With A Bus choogle along merrily. Around the Corner and Only Lovers Do wind things up nicely, and the whole exercise hangs together rather nicely even without the book which was, I must admit, a disappointment when it arrived.

While there are language advisory issues with some tracks the rest of them would have been getting high rotation if I was still presenting on the local airwaves which is, I think, about as high a recommendation as I’m able to deliver. There’s a raffish charm that runs through the album that sufficed to have the sequel Invisible Love downloaded as soon as it was sighted on the horizon.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

John Fahey "Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You (The Fonotone Years 1958-1965)" (4.5*)

There are times when the digital download just isn’t enough, and this five disk, 115 track box set is one of them. As a certified Fahey fan who’s in the process of acquiring everything in the man’s acoustic back catalogue (I’m not so sure about his later, more confrontational electric explorations, though no doubt I’ll be sampling some of them in the future) the chance to get back to Fahey’s very earliest work seemed like a no-brainer when I spotted these titles in the iTunes store, even at $16.99 a throw. We are, or rather were, looking at the formative years of one of Hughesy’s favourite musos.

With something like this, however, it’s not just the what when it comes to the recording, it’s the where, the when and the why, which explains why I’ve been forced to shell out for a hard copy. The hard copy comes with an accompanying hard cover 88-page book, and if I’d investigated first I wouldn’t have gone down the digital path at all.

Checking the possibilities at Fishpond alerted me to the presence of Vampire Vultures, the sequel to How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life (still need to track that one down, but it won’t be long before I do) and with Vampires marked down from $21 to $13.25 and Your Past around half price ($154 into a tad under $76) the catch-up exercise wasn’t as heavy on the hip pocket as it might have been.

Most of the music, at least in this incarnation, is available in a digital format for the first time, remastered from reel-to-reel tapes recorded in a basement in Frederick, Maryland for Joe Bussard’s tiny Fonotone label. That in this incarnation bit is the key here, because much of this material was revisited in later sessions.

Appearing a decade after Fahey’s death, the hard copy comes in a cardboard slip case, with two inserts.

One, a gatefold portfolio lined with period photographs, contains the five disks with 115 tracks sequenced chronologically, apart from a 1967 interview snippet that sets the scene for what follows as Fahey does his best to veer attention away from the rough hewn emulation of Charlie Patton and Mississippi John Hurt as Joe Bussard rolled tape and provided strong drink. The results were manually cut onto 78, 45 or 33 rpm disks from the master tape, each slightly different from other renderings of the same piece of tape.

The other, the aforementioned book, is where the real difference between the digital download and the hard copy comes in, and it comes in big time. If you’ve had enough of those CD booklets with fonts that require the use of a magnifying glass, this one’s for you, folks.

Formatted to the same size as the good old fashioned 12-inch album, the core of the book is Malcolm Kirton's exhaustive 40-page analysis of every track on the six-hour set, bringing together Fahey's take on the material, along with his tunings and playing techniques. It’s a detailed portrait of a scrawny white kid from the outskirts of Washington, D.C. who has somehow become fascinated by obscure songs from obscure black bluesmen ignoring contemporary rock’n’roll and canvassing door to door in poor neighbourhoods looking for old records.

The recordings here were the other side to that coin, since Bussard was a noted collector and, in return for the playing while the tape rolled Fahey got booze and spare copies of folk, blues and bluegrass 78s from the twenties and thirties that were surplus to Bussard’s requirements.

Kirton is also involved with The Fahey Files, an authoritative online archive of  Fahey’s extensive discography maintained by the International Fahey Committee.

Apart from Kirton’s Notes on the Recordings the book,contains co-producer Glenn Jones’ Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The FonotoneRecordings of John Fahey, 1958-1965, which sets the scene for what follows, and his description of Nuts and Bolts of the Set. Italian researcher Claudio Guerrieri contributes The Transillumination of Blind Thomas, a guide to the hand-written labels Bussard attached to the individual hand-cut recordings, which leads into Kirton’s An Orchestra in Miniature: Fahey’s Guitars and His Emerging Techniques, Fahey’s childhood friend R. Anthony Lee’s “The Wolves are Gone Now”: The Early Musical Life of John Fahey, a Byron Coley poem, Douglas Blazek’s 1967 interview with Fahey, published here for the first time and Eddie Dean’s In Memory of Blind Thomas of Old Takoma - John Fahey, 1939-2001 add extra dimensions to what is already a wealth of detail.

Blind Thomas, for the uninitiated, was Fahey’s fictional ancient black bluesman alter ego on the sessions, the predecessor to Blind Joe Death who allegedly played a guitar made from a child's coffin and was struck blind and dumb for refusing to learn barre chords.

But, regardless of the packaging (and it’s very impressive packaging) it’s the musical content that counts and while there’s material here that arguably justifies Fahey’s less than favourable assessment of it as a whole it’s a remarkable collection that shows the development of a self-taught guitarist who fused Appalachian string band music, Delta blues, Indian ragas and the hymns sung in his local church into steel-string fingerpicked tone poems.

Running through the set sequentially there are occasions where you’ll be inclined to reach for the fast forward button, particularly when Blind Thomas vocalises and collaborates with a flautist, but persevere and by the final disk a dedicated fan will be in familiar Fahey territory, having had a fair chance to get a sense of the musical terrain along the way.

Transferred from original tapes, with speed correction you’re looking at a remarkable collection that’s a must have for any serious student of finger-picked guitar and every long term Fahey devotee.

The set was released with the support of Joe Bussard and the John Fahey Estate, and dedicated to John’s mother, Jane C. Hayes and musician Jack Rose.