There has always been something a little spooky around the edges of John Fahey's music. The record that made the guitarist a bigger-than-cult figure around 1968 (it's hard to say just how big he was; in 1968, everything was a cult), "Blind Joe Death," seemed to come from an older, darker, more obstinate world than the rainbow-hued one that was blasting out of most of the speakers back then. His solo steel-string guitar -- all iron-solid fingerpicking, shifting bass lines under an ominous Delta-blues attack -- had a naked deliberateness, an almost Gothic quality.
Fahey's 10-finger virtuosity helped bring the acoustic steel-string guitar onto center stage as a solo instrument and inspired numerous followers, most notably Leo Kottke. His own career has followed an idiosyncratic path, from versions of songs by Brazilian guitar masters Baden Powell and Bola Sete to traditional folk melodies to adaptations of orchestral themes. He's even covered Eric Clapton's "Layla." In "City of Refuge," however, Fahey goes beyond idiosyncratic and into downright weird. And in this case, weird ain't wonderful.
"City of Refuge" may not be the most unpleasant album ever recorded, but it comes close. At several points during this interminable, self-indulgent aural experiment, I became convinced that Fahey's purpose was to recreate the exact sensation of a bad LSD trip or an evil hangover on a metaphysical
scale. If that is true, he succeeded admirably: This album should come with a free packet of Thorazine.
There are one or two tracks on "City of Refuge" where something like guitar playing can be heard, but mostly this "avant-garde" CD offers tonal noodlings that could have been done better by an autistic monkey and assorted "industrial" indulgences. I don't have anything against outside music: I like Ornette, I dig Cecil Taylor in small doses and I've even gotten a few moments of sublimity from a Chicago Art Ensemble concert. But there just ain't enough payoff for the ordeal of listening to Fahey deliberately hitting frets, muffling notes, turning the tuning pegs as he
pointlessly twangs whatever string comes to hand and generally acting like this curved wooden box is something he's never seen before. Every now and then he stumbles upon a Chopin-y chord that shines for an instant like a beacon against the background of sonic garbage. Then it's back for a nice stretch-out in the old tuna cans and thrown-away newspapers.
At its best, "City of Refuge" achieves a nightmarish soundtrack quality, "Eraserhead" meets "Under the Volcano." If you like nightmares, this album is for you. Perhaps the most horrific moment comes in a "tune" cheerily titled "On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age," when what sounds
like high-frequency maracas, or a hideous swarm of soulless insects, are shaken into your ears for five, count 'em five, minutes. Rock on, dude!
It's all very deconstructive and super-hip, but even Derrida probably can play better than this, and he sucks as a guitarist. I for one prefer to read my philosophy.
Leo Kottke's "Standing In My Shoes," mercifully, doesn't aspire to these lofty depths. Kottke, though not as dark and deep as Fahey, is even more of a virtuoso: Like a ragtime pianist, he has the kind of impeccable ability to play different lines simultaneously that almost requires a split brain.
The man's right hand should be preserved for science. The novelty here is that he uses a drummer and bass player. Usually it's just Kottke and his guitar. This allows him to stretch out a bit more rhythmically, since he doesn't have to maintain the bass line himself. The downside is that the sound is sometimes bottom-heavy and plodding. "Standing In My Shoes" is a nice little album, at times a bit repetitive, but subtly lyrical and funky in a smart, understated way.
Kottke plays a lot of slide here, and sings in a relaxed, intelligent voice -- much of this album is reminiscent of a polyrhythmic, understated Ry Cooder. An off-kilter, propulsive beat plays tag with catchy repeated guitar riffs, with hints of Indian and country added to Kottke's sui generis mixture of styles. One of the delights here is Chet Atkins' resonator-guitar solo on "Twice" -- listening to the old master's melodic assurance, you can hear the territory George Harrison came from. It's all very solid and unobjectionable, though a bit short on the sublime moments that Kottke at his best can attain.
When those moments come -- in the elegiac "Across the Street," with its dreamlike chords, in the melodic "Dead End" and in his understated but touching version of the old blues ballad "Corrina, Corrina," with its superb guitar voicings -- you wish Kottke had been a bit more adventurous, allowed his harmonic imagination freer rein. Still, Kottke's playing is as sensitive and precise as ever. "Standing In My Shoes" isn't groundbreaking,
but it's a pleasant excursion into new territory for a first-rate instrumentalist.