Friday, January 25, 2013

John Fahey - City of Refuge

In investigating Fahey's late period, I'm sympathetic with the fact that he felt dead-ended stylistically and was struggling to move beyond his signature American Primitive tropes into something a bit more...different and new.  The issue seems to be just what, precisely, that new direction is, and Fahey's frustration is evident in the music.

In spite of its recording date, City of Refuge most resembles 60's Fahey records like Volume 6: Days Have Gone By and Requia, with equal space and volume given to acoustic guitar and field recordings, found sounds and electronic sound sources.  As with those other recordings, this approach either stands (Days Have Gone By) or falls (Requia, often) on how well those elements mesh with one another compositionally.  The disc starts promisingly enough with "Fanfare," which sees an unusually (for Fahey) overdriven slide guitar layered on top of droning, industrial electronic sounds not unlike those produced by Keith Rowe, especially in his solo works.  As the tracks play on, for me the impression builds that the compositions aren't very well thought-out, which is a serious stumbling block for an artist whose greatest strength is arguably his ability as a longform composer, not as an improvisor, which is what he appears to attempt on "The Mill Pond" and large portions of "City of Refuge I," plucking single notes against a throbbing background drone.  While the proposition of a more spare approach to his guitar style is intriguing, the results here don't feel particularly well-realized.

Elsewhere we are suddenly jolted out of the avant-garde soundworld back into more traditional Fahey territory, with guitar-only excursions like "Chelsey Silver, Please Come Home," and the dirge-like "City of Refuge III."  The former hints at a new compositional twist on Fahey's slide style, with abrupt stops and rhythmic interruptions, but again it feels like he didn't thoroughly integrate the idea into the piece, or maybe it wasn't an idea after all and the performance is just choppy!  Both songs seem to lack distinctive melodies or a feel other than "Fahey filler"--pleasant enough, but by 1997 we know what this man is capable of!  To my ears, "Hope Slumbers Eternal" is the best-realized piece on the album, blending a droning background that relates tonally to the minor slide guitar melody it accompanies, provoking an eerie, meditative atmosphere--most importantly, the electronics and guitar seem to combine coherently, which is mostly not the case with the rest of the experiments here.  The album closes with the 19-minute "On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age," which, as far as I can tell, contains no guitar (though it does keep alive Fahey's tradition of humorously long and barbed song titles).  It's probably the most successful sound collage on the disc, but sitting at the end of a selection of noodly acoustic guitar pieces, it raises questions about what it's doing here, and why these songs all belong on the same album.  There is some cool rhythmic phasing of a tambourine-like sound that kicks in around the 12-minute mark and lasts for several minutes, and the album closes like it opened, with a classic Fahey field recording motif--a lonely locomotive whistle. 

This is the kind of album that really gets under my skin--not because I think it's bad, but because there's a palpable sense of frustration from an artist with specific ideas and a seeming incapability to fully realize them.  Probably more troubling to me personally is Fahey's frustrated attempt to break beyond his established vocabulary as a guitarist--for a man who reportedly described fingerpicking as a "disease," he must have felt more than a little trapped.  When an artist verges into atonal and pure sound territories, success seems to become as ephemeral as the compositional building blocks are abstract.  I find it daunting to explore these areas as the measure of artistic success depends even more on an unquantifiable gut reaction, and the difference between good and bad is painfully difficult to control as a composer--but perhaps that's where the adventure lies!  My next stop for late-era Fahey is another 1997 album, Womblife.  While my hopes for a successful application of his challenging ideas are tentative, even unsuccessful attempts in this territory are rewarding and always thought-provoking.

Get it here.