John Fahey - Sea Changes and Coelacanths (A Young Person's Guide to John Fahey)

Fahey playing an electric guitar might not have caused the sensation that Dylan did when he went electric, but in the smaller waters of Fahey's world there was still a great deal of disapproval.

 

John Fahey – Sea Changes and Coelacanths (A Young Person's Guide to John Fahey)

 

Beware: the title is a bit of a misnomer. This isn't a (bizarrely titled) 'best of' John Fahey. Rather, it collects three previously released albums from the mid-1990's when Fahey was 'rescued' from obscurity and put back on the main stage. For those that know something about Fahey's heyday and the music he released on his Takoma label, the music contained on Sea Changes and Coelacanths might come as something of a shock. The music is more experimental, more impressionistic, and is frequently encased in echoes. It's still bloody good though.

 

Let's clear one thing up before we go on. Or at least, remove it from the ledger. Fahey's playing – had it deteriorated over the twenty or so years leading up to these albums? I've no idea, and frankly no interest. Bores can pore over the technique and tut, but surely all that matters is the sound that emerges. Of course technique influences this, but give me a bum note in a great song over well played dross any time. So, on with the show.

 

Opening up the two CD set is the album Womblife, recorded in Jim O'Rourke's bedroom in 1996. The first track is Sharks. Fahey plucks at an electric guitar, and the echo-y sounds come and fade away. There is no intricate finger-picking and over time a heavy, ominous drone backs the guitar. At times the guitar sounds suggest the American West, but by the time the drone emerges it is more the clanking sounds of a sinking ship. The track becomes increasingly disquieting and discordant as it goes on – anyone buying this who's only heard Fahey's Christmas album will probably have something of a shock. Planaria opens up with something approximating gamelan music and the sound of a drumstick being run along a radiator. Fahey strums and plucks his guitar and creates distorted and drunken sounds. To an untrained ear (i.e. mine) they could be the sounds of someone trying to tune a guitar. Eels also has a strange, ghostly drone backing it. Here the playing seems more deliberate and focussed. Coelacanths maintains the impressionistic playing, again over a background of chattering percussion. The final (and longest) track on the Womblife album, Juana, offers something of a return to the old days. It's beginning is hesitant, as though Fahey is juggling several different songs at once. But the style is reminiscent of the Takoma days and the song grows stronger and more muscular as it goes on. As with the best of Fahey's music it allows the listener to imagine what she will – at times it rollicks along, at times it sounds like a love song and at times it sounds like an old folk number.

 

Rounding off the CD is a short live EP recorded around the same time as Womblife. Fahey runs through four brief bluesy numbers. They are no more than miniatures but they still showcase Fahey's understanding of the genre and his ability to pick and pull apart standard motifs and to remould them into something unmistakably his own. The second CD is also a live set and was originally released as Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts and Other Contemporary Dance Favourites. It opens with Fahey's version of House of the Rising Sun. Fahey's take on the song is very different to, say, Sandy Bull's faithful version of Chuck Berry's Memphis. If the song was a house Fahey's taken it apart, brick by brick, and built his own version up from scratch. His house approximates the original in some ways but overall is fundamentally different. We hear echoes of the original; hear the old traditional song pulled in directions it will never go again. It remains identifiably House of the Rising Sun, but only just. Imagine the song passed on from person to person in a version of Chinese Whispers. I don't know how many people it would have passed through to end up like this but I'd suggest quite a few. Anyway, it's a great version and it eventually segues into a version of Artie Shaw's Nightmare, the original of which I'm not aware.  Although, (and this might just be me), it does appear to contain the opening notes of the Bond theme at one point.

 

Next up is a version of Juana from Womblife that is much more fluid than the album version. Also included are traditional songs such as Red Rocking Chair and a version of Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo. Red Rocking Chair highlights Fahey's strength in creating emotional moments in songs. The song passes amiably by until a few minutes when suddenly there emerge moments of real, timeless beauty. Melancholy echoes, hopeful notes, and a sound that appears to be the distilled version of hundreds, if not thousands, of songs that have tried to convey similar emotions.

 

The sound is discordant at times, and the electric guitar a little shrill, but it doesn't really matter. Or at least, it only does if you want it to. Fahey playing an electric guitar might not have caused the sensation that Dylan did when he went electric, but in the smaller waters of Fahey's world there was still a great deal of disapproval. The irony about all of this is that these albums came to be made, in part at least, due to the younger generation discovering him. As well as Jim O'Rourke, Jack Rose and Glenn Jones of Pelt and Cul De Sac championed Fahey. In response to this backing Fahey made his most adventurous and 'difficult' album whilst the young guns produced faithful approximations of his earlier work. Jim O'Rourke even inserted one of Fahey's songs into his (unofficial) Fahey tribute album Happy Days. Anyway, Sea Changes is lovingly presented and packaged, complete with interviews, essays and photographs. It is certainly not one of for Fahey neophytes but for anyone who is a fan, or who is interested in the outer reaches of guitar improvisation it is a must.

 

Words: Chris Dawson.