Approaching an album like this with the intent of critique is odd. On one hand, its status as super-rare genre genesis would have it elevated beyond reproach, and there’s not enough exposure for dissent to find home in a common counteropinion. On the other, the lo-fi nature of Blind Joe Death‘s recording makes it difficult to discern how much of one’s criticisms have actual grounding in the performances. If I sound a tad skittish, then, I hope you’ll forgive me; because while being able to witness the early stages of fingerpicked blues’ morphosis into something more free-form is a real treat, Fahey’s just not there yet. His tendency to rush is frustrating, the low-string rhythms are frequently choppy and cut out too soon, and his phrasing can get awfully stiff at times (“On Doing an Evil Deed Blues”). However, when those issues subside thanks to an emphasis on the middle and high strings (the melancholy-yet-serene “Sligo River Blues”), I’m sold. The track’s clearly rooted in its titular style, but contains a meditative, almost spiritual calm the aimless “Transcendental Waterfall” only wishes it had. Knowing Fahey re-recorded this material multiple times in the ensuing decade makes me feel a little more secure in my fault-funding, and sure enough, comparing the ’59 versions (yes, I found them) of “Desperate Man Blues” and “In Christ There Is No East or West” to their ’64 counterparts reveals great strides in articulation and the integration of rhythm and melody. The man knew what he was doing.
Fahey’s technique has improved so drastically since his debut that I can no longer nitpick. (In that direction, at least.) Yeah, I still wish he would push out of folk/blues forms more radically, as the middle of the album grows restrictive in its reliance that two-note bass pattern, but there’s more than enough shove on other tracks for me to sate myself. His spidery treble patterns shimmer and his pensive chords are laden with middle-string tension, while the sighing “When the Springtime Comes Again” hits new levels of poignancy in its intro. Elsewhere, “America”‘s broad, seafaring feel stumbles a touch on jarring cuts, but “Stomping Tonight” might be the best microcosm of Death Chants‘ split. Hopping back and forth between low, bluesy runs and a high, spiralling trance, it’s a testament to its expert construction that the track doesn’t give you whiplash.
Lots more slide and lots more darkness here, so of course my favorite uses the former to completely undermine the latter. “On the Banks of the Owchita” sees Fahey teaming up with a second guitarist, resulting in hyper-vivid textures: quivering moonbeams slicing through waves of chords, me struck back, slack-jawed at such beauty. For the first time, our hero no longer sounds limited by blues convention. If he wants to load up on double-string drones (“Variations on the Coocoo”) or construct a series of vignettes that twist through sickly tension, ambiguous dissonance, and resigned shudders (“What the Sun Said”), it’s just as fine as him laying out some high-stepping strides (“Worried Blues”). Fahey saves his trump for last, though, revealing “Dance of Death” as his most successful long-form composition yet, wasting no time between lean, carved descents, high-strung cackles, and billowing chords that wash us back to the unforgiving grind.
More meek and content here, which helps Fahey hit new dimensions of calm in meditative pining (“On the Sunny Side of the Ocean”) and a front-porch sunset (“Old Southern Medley”), but results in the man’s first album that feels like a holding pattern. “How Green Was My Valley” recalls “Worried Blues”, “St. Patrick’s Hymn” echoes “Episcopal Hymn”—neither possessing their predecessors’ zeal—and ambitious long-form pieces like “What the Sun Said” are conspicuously absent. I prefer my Fahey explorative, so while I still enjoy the sounds of a traveller at home with his dog (“Poor Boy”), The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death strikes me as mostly a reenumeration of past successes for a new label.
Though it’s assembled from material dating as far back as 1962, this is far more daring than anything Fahey had previously released, incorporating flute, organ, tape effects, and veena (an Indian instrument similar to the sitar)—not to mention the sprawling nineteen-minute title track. Like past stitch job “America”, this birthday party gets a little lost as it winds forward (and as with most of these tracks, has a significant length problem), but the opening third smolders with a grace and calm that does The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death proud. Elsewhere, spotty recording quality brings benefits (accentuating “Guitar Excursion”‘s gnarled, boney dissonance) and drawbacks (muddying up “900 Miles”‘ interplay), and “Knott’s Berry Farm Molly”‘s trips backward somehow feel right at home buckling a creaky wagon wheel in on itself. There’s no turning around for Fahey now after such a bold display of ambition. (I hope.)
When some of us fans talk about Fahey’s music as having an almost spiritual quality, this is what we’re referring to: Even when he’s blazing through densely woven picking patterns at lightning speed (“Night Train of Valhalla”), not a hair is out of place. Just an unspeakably serene flow as cleansing chord washes melt into stream-of-consciousness twists and turns that leave me with a gentle peace as the high recedes. To that end, “A Raga Called Pat” stands as the guitarist’s most sublime composition yet. Starting with the sounds of a train in a storm, “Pt. 1” winds through propulsive drones and glimmers, eventually returning home amid “Pt. 2″‘s abstract squalls and chirps (apparently created through turntable manipulation). Incorporating avant-garde techniques is one hurdle Fahey had already surpassed, but seamlessly folding what amount to synthetic birds into a meditative environment is a remarkable show of sensitivity. Probably for the best, John doesn’t spend all of Days Have Gone By plumbing the depths of the mind. “We Would Be Building” may be his finest hymn thus far (benefiting from further-improved technique and resonant harmonics), and “My Grandfather’s Clock” should be friendly enough to warm even the coldest of hearts. It’s funny; The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party may have been the first sighting of Fahey’s more outre tendencies, but Days Have Gone By manages to fulfill that album’s transportative ambitions while being much less ostentatious.
Ever the prankster, Fahey intersperses obscure recordings of obfuscated lineage among his most distant, disorienting pieces yet. I’m indifferent to some of the earlier tracks, but ricocheting from the heady “A Raga Called Pat, Part IV” through the scratchy fiddle of “Train” into “Je me me suis”‘ giggling singalong constitutes a mighty broad range of moods—even if all the songs aren’t actually played by the guitarist himself.
From critical consensus to Fahey himself, the general line on Requia seems most apt to these ears: a dazzling first half saddled with a less satisfying second. “John Hurt” and “Russel Blaine Cooper” are serene in the tradition of Days Have Gone By’s best, but nowhere near as trancey, instead favoring sunny fields and riverbanks to “A Raga Called Pat”‘s rainy meditation. Even “When the Catfish Is in Bloom”, for all its oblique, tweaky angles, reaches a somehow higher plane of effortlessness. Then there’s “Requiem for Molly”. Somehow John’s sterling track record for nuance goes out the window, bringing in snippets of Nazis, marching bands, crying babies, “Wedding March”—few of them supported by guitar parts beyond the superfluous, though Part 1 works when you tune out most of the strums. Similarly, Part 3’s varispeed speech and churning growls are enjoyable even without the appropriately solemn guitar; it’s just Part 2’s bombast that largely makes the piece such an uneven dive into musique concrete.
At the risk of selling it short, I can’t see The Yellow Princess as, if not inevitable, a highly likely occurrence. With a string of releases across the 60s ranging from “merely” solid (The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death) to just shy of immortality (Days Have Gone By)—not to mention Requia‘s virtually flawless opening half—Fahey would’ve had to encounter some grave setback to not capitalize on such momentum. But again, not a moment of The Yellow Princess is as airless as that may suggest. If anything, the guitarist is taking some of the biggest risks of his career, even enlisting a rock band (the ever-overlooked Spirit) for a few pieces. To that end, the sober dignity of “March! For Martin Luther King” and ecstatic (some might say psychedelic) high of “Invisible City of Bladensburg” simply wouldn’t be possible without the added spatial depth of drums or organ. Equally bold is “The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee”, due in no small part to it accomplishing in three minutes what “Requiem for Molly” failed to in over twenty. Granted, there’s much less guitarwork and the sounds are far less aggressive, but “Bridge” actually coheres into a sensible, enjoyable whole: an inviting waterfront with its own fair share of mystery. Then there are the solo pieces. All my prior praise for Fahey’s best as having a near-spiritual quality applies in full, this time undercut with a scarcely believable level of intimacy. “View” feels like the soul-baring conversation you might have with a close friend as the sun sets—where the space between sentences is just as vital as the words you speak. And on a related note, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t sound like the title track has a gentle voice tucked within its drones. The Yellow Princess isn’t all smiles and solidarity, though. “Charles A. Lee”‘s complex dissonance are laced with a sense of mortality that harks back to early career gems like The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites, benefitting here, of course, from years of technical improvement. For all Fahey’s past brilliance in explorations of grief, there’s no way he could have crafted something as wrenching as “Irish Setter” back in 1964. The silences are too pained, the transitions between sections too seamless, and the dirge-like third movement…truly heartbreaking.
Early tracks aside, I can’t even justify this as a well-deserved rest after The Yellow Princess; from the stock arrangements and conspicuous cuts between takes to the rote drones and sloppy execution, it registers as both half-hearted effort and massive disappointment. Fahey hasn’t turned out a piece as disjointed as the closer in nearly a decade.
Clearly needing a break after a worn-out Christmas album, Fahey returns from a multi-year recording gap with his most ambitious work yet. Intended as a double-LP, America still conveys all the sprawl and majesty suggested by its title in only 39 minutes, thanks primarily to the two epics that occupy the bulk of the running time. Sure enough, diving into “The Voice of the Turtle” or “Mark 1:15” for the first time is almost disorienting. There’s an array of seeming contradictions—heavy yet uplifting, sober yet evocative—and Fahey steers between these poles endlessly, weaving sometimes drastically different motifs together at a restrained, deliberate pace far more natural than, say, “The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party”. It’s easy to mistake the austere technique and often abstract patterns as passionless, but there are, especially on “Mark 1:15”, strong undertones of loneliness—almost a sense of estrangement, which matches “The Voice of the Turtle”‘s on-the-road roaming. “The Waltz” furthers this notion, using heavy delay to twist an otherwise relaxed sway in on itself until it turns sickly, making a familiar climb dizzying rather than blissful. And while America might not have The Yellow Princess‘ staggering emotional breadth, its ease under tension and perfecting of the long-form composition make it a quite welcome follow-up. You know, instead of that other record.
Need a break? Join John and his Grand Dixieland Band for a set of lax and relaxed bobs down the titular river, where the tempos are slow, the rowing intervals deep, and that familiar Fahey magic makes for a far more enjoyable listen than I expected (considering my predisposition against the style).
Featuring the return of Fahey’s Dixie group, After the Ball might seem like a repeat of his last LP. Oh, how I wish it was. Instead of lazy rivers and summer days, this is perky and celebratory—an approach that works mighty well on the first two tracks. “Horses” sees our guitarist high-stepping through town until “New Orleans Shuffle”, where his band meets him for the party. Stay alert for a particularly juicy piano transition into a meaty clarinet solo. After two more songs of egregious length, Fahey settles down in the extreme, motoring through curt little tunes that are distinguished more by their complacency than any traits of interest. He sees us out the door with the sleepy titular waltz, and I’m left on his stoop wondering how such a festive bash turned so stale so quickly.
Coming off his two-record stint with a Dixie band, Fahey probably could’ve released anything in his usual style and I would’ve eaten it up. But this? A simultaneous return to the sprawling ambition of America and the introspection of his 60s work—one that tops the former and nearly unseats the entirety of the latter? I’m floored. In sum, these three pieces turn austere structures inward, probing for transcendence amid puckered arpeggios and ascetic drones; but of course, nothing here is that simple. More than ever, Fahey’s operating on some inexpressible logic that allows him to morph between motifs at a moment’s notice. Tempos shift, top-string melodies submerge and resurface, turns recur throughout—nothing feels out of place. I have to admit, though, the titular opus caught me off-guard. After setting sail on a sober, gentle sea, I wasn’t expecting to be greeted with good-humored sloshes to and fro or sparkling acrobatics reminiscent of The Yellow Princess. It’s still a lean contentedness, very aware of its impermanence, but when we return to calmer waters and a sensitive low-string figure, I’m reassured. Even though he revealed his works of beauty to be farces—coping strategies—in later years, I find much comfort in a supposed crank willing to place solace as the destination of a trip inwards.
I hope the blue, lifeless guitar sound is what’s ruining this for me, because Old Fashioned Love—with the possible exception of “Dry Bones”—is Fahey’s first release with nothing compelling to offer. The opening three tracks (duets with guitarist Woody Mann) are mostly languid, stone-faced bores, the Dixieland cuts are tepid retreads of the already middling After the Ball, and everything feels drawn-out to obscene lengths. Coming off the glorious Fare Forward Voyagers, this is a colossal disappointment.
Christmas With John Fahey Vol. II (1975)
I feel a little better. This is far from Fahey’s best, but it certainly tops his first Christmas album; and more importantly, it reassures me that the last release’s failure was due to production more than any lasting creative slump. The guitarist sounds invigorated here, both on the intricate duets with fellow six-stringer Richard Ruskin and the dark, far-reaching “Fantasy” sequence. Though there are flaws aplenty (lack of direction, repetition, more repetition), the cuts are tight, causing me to actually break into a smile on the medley. You know, like Christmas songs are supposed to. Note: I’m unable to find any sort of stream of “Christmas Fantasy, Part I”. Even on Spotify, where the rest of the album is seemingly present. I can’t find track lengths, either, so for all I know, what’s listed there as “Christmas Fantasy, Part II” is actually the entire piece.