John Fahey – The Yellow Princess

The Yellow Princess

John FaheyThe Yellow Princess Vanguard VSD-79293 (1968)

There may not be any simple way to characterize all of John Fahey’s recordings, given the vast amount of territory they cover.  But even as it feels more modern than his earliest records (read: his first three albums), The Yellow Princess still falls toward the more conservative, straightforward end of the spectrum.  That fact leads to a few rather obvious characterizations.  The material is rather accessible, and focuses on technical mastery of the steel-string acoustic guitar in a relatively traditional folk song setting more than on improvised stylistic explorations.  That is to say that unlike his early attempts to play folk and blues tunes like symphonies solo on a steel stringed acoustic guitar, full of noisy artifacts, or experimental sound collages, he is now playing more conventionally pretty and technically impressive folk music.  Prime examples of this are the title track and “Lion”.  Even though he does include some sound collages, there aren’t the inevitable missteps of experimental music that characterize some other Fahey albums, giving The Yellow Princess a more even feel.  A durable and enjoyable album, but also probably not the most impressive in the Fahey catalog — for which I would probably lean toward things like the more enigmatic and mystical Volume 6: Days Have Gone By.  Nonetheless, this is a versatile album well suited for listening in mixed company.

Worth recommending is a CD reissue that adds three lengthy bonus tracks, the best of which is “The John Fahey Sampler, Themes and Variations”.

El Camarón de la Isla – Castillo de arena

Castillo de Arena

El Camarón de la Isla con la colaboración especial de Paco de LucíaCastillo de arena Philips 63 28 255 (1977)

Castillo de arena (translation: “Sandcastle”) was the culmination of years of collaboration between noted flamenco performers Camarón de la Isla (vocals) and Paco de Lucía (guitar).  Camarón is strongly associated with raising the prominence of flamenco music among international audiences.  Both performers also helped develop what is called “nuevo flamenco,” which incorporated elements of non-flamenco music.  While Camarón’s next album, the pathbreaking La leyenda del tiempo, is most strongly associated with a transition to nuevo flamenco, there are subtler gestures in that direction already present here.  And, anyway, to insist on flamenco purism is a bit ridiculous anyway, given the already syncretic nature of the music.  It shares aspects of a variety of ancient musics, including — in brief segments, especially in the vocal phrasing — some striking resemblances to Moroccan berber music (and specifically Jbala sufi trance music) from the likes of The Master Musicians of Joujouka/Jajouka, which, after all, comes from merely a few hundred kilometers away to the south across the Straight of Gibraltar.

Brook Zern has said,

“He was known for afinacion, which means the ability to be perfectly on pitch but not necessarily on the notes of a Western scale. Flamenco music uses microtonal intervals all the time, and nobody cut them closer and did them more precisely technically than this young artist.”

Camarón was Romani (gypsy) by birth.  He definitely imbues in his music the defiant character of his upbringing in a (notoriously) dominated social group, evidenced by his willingness to break from tradition and use of afinacion.  His voice is husky, almost sandpaper coarse, yet precisely pitched and expertly controlled.  Paco de Lucía complements the singing perfectly, with intricate strumming and embellished melodic lines that flow back and forth smoothly and seamlessly.  Flamenco style guitar playing really represents one of the most interesting ways of strumming a guitar, with far more rhythmic (not to mention melodic/harmonic) intricacy than the often lazy manner of strumming chords on a guitar in many Western traditions that hardly do more than establish a chord progression.

Like much flamenco music, this album has a melancholic and bitter yet emotionally fiery feeling.  “Y mira que mira y mira” and “Como castillo de arena” have the most modern “nuevo flamenco” elements, with a vocal chorus on the former and layered, almost mechanical (motorik?) handclaps on the latter.

Flamenco music, in general, has been described this way:

“A typical flamenco recital with voice and guitar accompaniment, comprises a series of pieces (not exactly “songs”) in different palos [styles]. Each song of a set of verses (called copla, tercio, or letras), which are punctuated by guitar interludes called falsetas. The guitarist also provides a short introduction which sets the tonality, compás and tempo of the cante.”

Castillo de arena definitely follows the format of such a traditional flamenco recital, lacking only a traditional dancer.

This is another excellent effort by some of flamenco’s more highly regarded performers on the 20th Century.  Although in some ways the experimentation of La leyenda del tiempo is more intriguing, those not ready or interested in synthesizers and electric instruments in flamenco often cite Castillo de arena as these performers’ best recording.  There is certainly no need to pick a favorite, as both are excellent and come from a peak period in the careers of both Camarón and Lucía.

Camarón – La leyenda del tiempo

La leyenda del tiempo

CamarónLa leyenda del tiempo Philips 63 28 255 (1979)

Camarón de la Isla is credited with being one of the key figures in revitalizing and spreading flamenco music in the latter part of the 20th Century.  His voice is more or less perfectly suited to his music: raspy, agile, defiant, emotionally-laden.  La leyenda del tiempo (translation: “The Legend of Time”) is considered one of the key documents of so-called “nuevo flamenco.”  Traditional flamenco is a folk music that uses guitar (acoustic), vocals, and simple percussion from handclaps and snapping fingers, and is a dance music.  It originated in the Andalucía region of southern Spain.  The “nuevo” version incorporated many other sounds and instruments: electric guitar, bass, drum kits.  In other words, it modernized the music by incorporating aspects of other musical styles, most notably rock.  The most modernized tracks here are easy to spot, with synthesizer, electric bass, drums and such — even sitar on the closing “Nana del caballo grande.”  And yet, they blend effortlessly with the traditional style of flamenco.  The guitar playing (mostly by Tomatito) is just as fiery and detailed, the vocals just as impassioned.  It simply has nothing to fear about embracing the modernity all around it.  Recorded just a few years after the death of Generalissimo Franco, during the period of a return to a monarchy and some democratizing reforms in Spain, the timing of this music bridging the old and new is no coincidence — the lyrics of fully half the songs are drawn from Federico García Lorca, a member of the “Generation of ’27” who experimented to new poetic forms and was also a martyr of the anti-Franco Spanish socialists whose works had been banned in Spain for a time (until 1953).  And yet, the album was a flop upon release, and it actually was reported to have angered longtime, traditionalist fans.  As James Kirkup put it in an obituary:

“Flamenco purists deplored his adventurous crossover fusion of flamenco and rock, but they were reluctantly compelled to admit that he was a musical genius who revived the interest of the younger generation in a musical tradition that had been discredited as a symbol of the late dictatorship’s rabid nationalism.”

In spite of controversies he stirred, and the initial lack of success of this album, Camarón remained one of the most famous Spanish performers of his era, and this album has since come to be highly regarded.  A comparison to this approach to music on a conceptual level might be Lucio Battisti‘s Anima latina, which has nothing to do with flamenco, but nonetheless, like nuevo flamenco, takes a kind of insular, provincial European music and incorporates international influences (although El Camarón sticks closer to tradition and virtuoso acoustic performance, and features a proud and resilient attitude in place of Battisti’s highly structural existential pondering).

Leonard Cohen – New Skin for the Old Ceremony

New Skin for the Old Ceremony

Leonard CohenNew Skin for the Old Ceremony Columbia AL 33167 (1974)

Cohen summons an impressive assortment of styles. It is as if he tries them on, proving how versatile his songwriting can be by demonstrating that all the ones that fit.  So take “Lover Lover Lover,” which even concludes with a bit of klezmer clarinet.  Of course, then there is “Chelsea Hotel #2.”  This is a song you can listen to, start over again, and again, and suddenly an hour has gone by listening to just that one song.  It has Cohen’s inimitable sense of intimacy.  Cohen later admitted the song is about Janis Joplin.  Like a lot of Cohen’s best album-length statements, this one is great not because of one or two key songs, or even the production or eclectic styles.  No, what makes the whole album great is Cohen’s brilliant sense of place and social context.  He’s for the underdogs, doing what he can for their cause, a kind of consciousness-raising through song, without losing sight of the tenuous position of underdogs and the tactical challenges they face.  This is epitomized by “There Is a War.”  All said, this is one of Cohen’s better albums.

Bert Jansch – Jack Orion

Jack Orion

Bert JanschJack Orion Transatlantic TRA 143 (1966)

“The Waggoner’s Lad,” with overlaid banjo and guitar starts Jack Orion on a high note, and the album pretty much never lets up.  The album as a whole returns to the emphasis on displays of instrumental virtuosity of Bert Jansch.  There was scarcely a better European guitarist in the 1960s than Jansch.  He and Davy Graham were, in many ways, the European counterparts to American Primitive guitarists like John Fahey, just a wee bit more extroverted.  Probably my favorite Jansch album.

John Fahey – Vol 3: Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites

Vol 3: Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites

John FaheyVol 3: Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites Takoma C 1004 (1965)

As a guitarist John Fahey’s talents grew quickly in the early 1960s.  Vol 3: Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites was definitely his most accomplished album to date (though later re-recordings of his first two albums are just as good).  He was still operating in reach of the traditional blues, folk and country material he drew from.  Excursions into the realm of tape manipulation, field recording overdubs, and experimental guitar techniques still lay in the future.  But his trademark ability to take traditional forms and re-purpose them into something a little darker and more existential — by way of trying to play a “symphony” on a single steel string acoustic guitar — coalesced here.  Surely one of the man’s best efforts.  Worthy of plenty of spins.

John Fahey – The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death

The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death

John FaheyThe Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death Riverboat RB-1 (1965)

By the time he recorded The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, John Fahey was beginning to experiment.  He was drawing in influence not just from country, blues and folk, but also Euro-classical and Indian classical traditions.  What holds this album back from being great is that he’s going in too many different directions.  He doesn’t quit fit everything together as seamlessly as he would later on The Yellow Princess or in as sweeping and epic a way as on America, and for that matter the experiments are a bit more tepid than on the likes of Guitar Vol. 4 (The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party and Other Excursions), which is admittedly a bit uneven.  Fahey admirers will nonetheless dig this, and it still holds the potential to open a few eyes and ears for the unconverted too.  If you have the option, though, head for The Yellow Princess and America first to hear the ideas here more fully realized.

Bert Jansch – It Don’t Bother Me

It Don't Bother Me

Bert JanschIt Don’t Bother Me Transatlantic TRA 132 (1965)

People tend to like this much less than the Jansch albums that bookend it (Bert Jansch and Jack Orion).  While it certainly scales back the displays of virtuoso fingerpicking from his eponymous debut, the casually evoked moods here seem of the times in a way that neither the album immediately before nor after this did.  It is more earthly and transparent.  And it leans toward wistful and somber reflections on the new possibilities of 1960s counterculture.  This is close to John Fahey of the era, but with vocals that add a new dimension.  I for one think this is another great one — up there with Jansch’s very best.

Bert Jansch – Rosemary Lane

Rosemary Lane

Bert JanschRosemary Lane Transatlantic TRA 235 (1971)

A mellower side of Bert Jansch.  This one feels a lot more classically “English” than his great early records.  As usual, the guitar playing is tremendous.  There’s no doubt after just the opener “Tell Me What Is True Love?” where Nick Drake got much of his inspiration for the following year’s Pink Moon.