Let me say it again: If you aren't in love with classic "folk" or "roots rock" albums released before you were born (or when you was just wee high) with titles like "Music From Big Pink," "Blood on the Tracks," "On the Beach," "Astral Weeks," "Stormcock" and "High, Low and In Between" just to name a meager few, there's something missing in your life.
There was once a time when honest, personal songwriting and unique perspectives were honored and revered by the music buying public at large, and very occasionally even at a mass level. Light pop, folk rock, the hippie 60s and the resultant early 70s folk and roots rock boom all brought a tide of warmth and genuine "goodness" and human joy to the airwaves and helped a wounded society get back to the daily business of living and loving. If a little buying was involved too, we could let it slide. Just buy something for the soul, maybe a good book, or record or even a DVD. Maybe some trinket or little totem. Or a trip somewhere nice. "On the Beach" holds so much more resonance in the world today, and how some of us are dealing with that sinking sensation, than every lame post 911 tribute song compiled since. Maybe it's not a surprise to some that everything has gotten so much more fucked up since, but it doesn't make it any easier for anyone raising a family or trying to find love amid so much hate. These lines from Young's "Motion Pictures" say it well:
"Motion Pictures on my TV screen,
a home away from home,
and I'm livin' in between,
but I hear some people
have got their dreams.
I got mine.
I hear the mountains are doing fine.
Morning glory is on the vine,
and the dew is falling.
The dukes are calling.
Yes I've got mine.
Well all those people,
they think they got it made,
But I wouldn't buy,
sell, borrow or trade
anything I have...
to be like one of them.
I'd rather start all over again.
Well all those headlines,
they just bore me now.
I'm deep inside myself,
but I'll get out somehow,
and I'll stand before you,
and I'll bring a smile
to your eyes..."
"Escape from reality" has never been a more acceptable evolutionary response. Every song on "On the Beach" is loaded with such honest reflections. But Young also knows we won't ever get anything done hiding in the shadows. Leave that to Jihadists and shadowy old game theorists pulling the strings from above and below. My real point in all this soapboxing is this: If you really feel this "classic folk rock" and folk-pop stuff, you might actually appreciate what's going on right now in the musical underground of today.
Listen closely and you might hear The Skygreen Leopards rolling and dancing in "Life & Love in Sparrow's Meadow" (Jagjaguwar). What these lads do is tap into that same spirit of all these old folkies and songwriters mentioned above with just as much wit and clarity, but they take it even further down the rabbit hole. The heavier rhythmic edges of rock are slightly whittled away here for the sake of simpler musical arrangements and sheer musical joy. That joy is leveled out by as much fear and sorrow, but this stuff always come from from a deeply felt, human place. The subject matter--largely a patchwork of vivid journeys into nature and the self--seems to echo Neil Young's sentiments above in a more abstract and direct way at the same time. There's such simple beauty in the plaintive "Mother, the Sun Makes Me Cry," a track that builds in a swirl of jangly acoustic guitars, hand drums and jew's harp to a chorus of Donovan and Glenn's disparate timbers woven together, almost clumsily echoing the rawer side of the Band. These songs are paintings that reveal visible beauty at first glance but also give you reasons to revisit and rediscover deeper, more hidden messages from the green mind. Throughout I capture glimpses of melodies from people like The Byrds, Them, Simon and Garfunkle, Bob Dylan, God, but the performances are so loose and natural you could almost call them "free." The only real reference point that comes to mind is Dylan and The Band on "The Basement Tapes," a collection of rehearsals and demos that just happens to be the greatest double album ever recorded.
"School of the Flower" (Drag City) by Six Organs of Admittance is my favorite release to pop from Ben Chasny's psychic womb yet. The guy's matured admirably, delving deeper into pure emotional catharsis from the songwriter's perspective and finding the way to his own voice in the process. I've always been blown away by his guitar skills and how he can turn a cryptic phrase into an epic dark folk invocation. With "School" though there's something almost new at play...call it joy. He splits things down the middle between free jazz/ethnic psych pieces, two featuring the great Chris Corsano on percussion, and gorgeous, heartbroke sermons from the mound about life, love and the Great Big Nothing At All. The concept of Nothing is not a fun thing to come face to face with, but when you can stare it down and see all the way to the other side of that abyss, and realize you're just looking right back in your own eyes, maybe it's not such a bad thing. Ben's always been one to come at whatever his chosen art is from a more personal perspective, and it's tempting for some cynical sorts to dismiss the hip folk magus image as just that, but it's more and more apparent that this is for real. You can hear the enthusiasm and passion in his voice, see the certainty in his finger tips. These 8 songs--be they slow, rambling folk-pop gems or long, cycling prog folk jams--never divert from that path of certainty. Golden.
"The Earth is Blue," Damon and Naomi's new full length with Michio Kurihara of Ghost, White Heaven and The Stars, is an absolutely gorgeous feast for the heart and soul. Includes a stunning cover photo that I could easily take as another homage to that Neil Young classic quoted above, but that's probably just me showing my bias and abundant gratitude to Mr. Young. The music here is some of the most graceful, lovingly rendered studio work from these people yet, and they somehow carry on the high mark set by their previous studio album, recorded with three members of Ghost, and the following CD/DVD live set, "Song to the Siren," their final release for Sub Pop. "The Earth is Blue" is the flagship release for the duo's own label, 20/20/20, and it appears they've saved the best for most recent. These songs, lent stunning depth by Kurihara's singular guitar presence and Greg Kelley (trumpet) and Bhob Rainey (alto sax), honor a line that reaches all the way back to the first Damon and Naomi album, but the compositions are deeper and richer than ever before. There's really no way to put it other than that. Fuzz guitar, graceful electric leads, bass, piano, drums and Naomi's gorgeous vocals are all given plenty of room to float and resonate in the warm mix. In fact the weakest track here is probably the cover of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," which is actually amazing. The following "Ueno Station" is a sparse slow folk hypnologue "for Tomokawa Kazuki and Mikami Kan." Not to be outdone is the gliding dream of Caetano Veloso's "Araçá Azul" (Blue Guava) which connects magnificently with the closing title track as if both were always parts of the larger whole. Their best one yet. The first 100 ordered from the website came with a limited live CD-R captured in Tokyo in early 2004 that also features Kurihara and the great Taishi Takizawa (of Ghost) on flute. It's probably long gone though.
Speaking of Ghost and others Chasny has taken inspiration from, L (aka Hiroyuki Usui) played drums with Ghost before they were even Ghost, and Fushitsusha and Marble Sheep too! But on "Holy Letter," originally recorded around 1990, privately released 5 years later, and now widely available for the first time on VHF with liner notes from Mr. Chasny himself, the aura is gorgeously downcast and blurred to the point where dream space and reality flow together continuously in one deep river of love. This is unlike anything out there, yet many specters and masters past/present might materialize across the expanse of these 11 song journeys. Usui, on almost all instruments here, is quite simply a master of spacious folk blues and transcendental noise, weaving slow sad melodies from acoustic and electric guitars, the sounds of rainfall, the most haunted vibe work, cello, didgeridu, and more along with his own expressive and utterly accessible voice--employed as spoken word, singing, throat singing, etc--which loses none of its potency to foreign ears. Considerate sequencing and production lends the entire work a cohesion, and quite simply a holy aura, as various strains of one piece bleed into another to reveal a constant flow of hypnotic ecstasy. Perfect for readjusting to the sun's harsh glare after a particularly dark night, and an all around joy to behold. This reissue is definitely one of the most exquisite rediscoveries of 04, and there were certainly a lot of those.
"Halo" By Current 93 (Durtro/Jnana) is another intense and visionary disk that creeped out of the pop cellar in late '04. The former David Tibet's (now David Michael) band's latest live album is a genuine masterpiece of gothic chamber folk, industrial noise, hope and glory captured in one night in October, 2003 at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London with Chris and Cosey lending support. Now that's a piece of rock history right there, and thankfully dear seeker of emotional catharsis and heart-breaking song, Current 93's role that night is now much more than just a memory. If you've yet to take the great plunge into the vast and complex world of Current 93, this is as good a reason as any. It's also one of the more stunningly performed and recorded live albums I've ever heard, and I've heard more than I care to remember. Every aspect of David's musical accompaniment here is first rate. You dig Angels of Light? You'll love this. Like Godspeed You Black Emperor, but think they're a bit too predictable and uh...soulless? Look here for what's missing. Inspiring is an understatement. "Halo" is a brilliant selection of 16 songs, drawn mostly from the previous 12 years (Current 93's most vital phase), painstakingly rendered as one unforgettable whole. No surprise I have two other new c93 releases in transit to thee headquarters as I type... "Watch and pray," indeed.