Sir Richard Bishop
It is hard to get a real read on many of the recent psychedelic units like Sunburned Hand of the Man, Acid Mothers Temple and the now defunct Sun City Girls because their catalogs are so outsize, relatively unavailable and widely variant in quality one has little notion of where to start. Sun City Girls, in the limited snippets my antennae have received, came across as The Butthole Surfers without the redneck thuggery that drags r-n-r buffoonery into high art from the trailer hitch on a stolen truck. Sun City Girls always struck me as cool, but not cool enough to justify the investment of time to explore it. I'm sure I will be soon a convert, given my history, but for now, let's focus on their aftermath.
The band called it quits when drummer Charles Grocher left this mortal coil in February of 2007, and Girl guitarist Alan Bishop has carved out a new identity as an unlikely acoustic guitar guru. When listening to SCG, you got the feeling it was about the spirit, not the execution, but on Bishop's solo guitar albums, he is heads down, coaxing the intricacies of the cosmos out his little wooden sound hole. On his 2006 album Fingering the Devil, he displays an affinity with the quizzical masterwork of Robbie Basho, putting Orientalism (an activity that sums up large swaths of the SCG catalog) against Gringo counter-culture defiance. On Polytheistic Fragments, he ups his game to a Whitman-esque panorama of the world's music.
It opens with the torrential downpour of "Cross My Palm With Silver," an intricate cinematic Western pastiche that sounds like it is trying to describe a John Ford movie to you rather than merely soundtrack it. Whooda thunk Bishop was really this good of a player? "Hecate's Dream" veers more into somnambulant Ry Cooder territory, delayed side guitar appearing and disappearing in the dark like desert highway headlights. "Elysium Number Five" brings immediate contrast as a devilishly complicated tango that would leaves its dancers with entwined limbs, writhing on the parkade.
It's like Bishop is on one of his music gathering expeditions from his earlier days, except instead of sticking street vendor cassettes into the dubbing deck, he is allowing the smoke of the world envelop him and his guitar, and lets the flames erupt where they will. "Free Masonic Guitar" is like a folk song gone haywire, like if John Fahey got really mad at you, alternating between wall-shaking chords and fingerpicking of microcosmic intricacy.
There are two diversions from the rattle of his fretting: The first is the short "Cemetery Games" which is a sinister Residents/Tom Waits zombie rhumna thing punctuated by deep echo piano. It's cool, but it sounds out of place with the whole of this album, which is a good thing. I can go in deep on a John Fahey record until I can't stand it any more, and Bishop sidesteps that with his sharp turns. The other is the epic length "Saraswati" - a piano melody opening like a lotus blossom, allowing the overtones to create sitar-like accompaniment in the air. It's rather lovely, but lacks the meat and potatoes of the rest of the record, and you are thankful when "Tennessee Porch Swing" rears its sweet folky head. The oddest song is "Canned Goods and Firearms" where he becomes a one-man Ventures, trotting a giddy-up solo over a Tennessee Two shuffle, all in the same reverbed pointillism. It's a diversion, a well crafted one, mind you, but a diversion nonetheless. "Ecstasies in the Open Air" closes this album with orange and red sunset calm, almost New Age in its solemnity.
The variety here serves the record remarkably well. It's as if you happened on the best Sunday afternoon folk music broadcast ever cobbled together. I predict I will be cutting my way through the SCG jungle soon, but now that band of merry pranksters is kaput, I am eager to have Bishop around as a new sage of cosmic folk.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com