Like many folks out there apparently, some dormant thing awoke in me when I first heard Devendra Banhart. Some longing for drug-hazed guitar strumming, for ornate pastoral melodies that stretched to both the ancient past and the possible future that circled my head like a flower chain pieced together by a hippy girl in a flouncy sundress. I think excess may have gotten the best of Devendra just like it did the marc Bolan he so deftly emulates, but that seed he planted for ornate, filigreed cosmic folk germinated. Having never heard them consciously, I knew I needed some Fairport Convention, some Steeleye Span. Suddenly I desperately needed some poncy hippie drivel I'd to that point derided purely on principle. But since I am a man that has little to no respect for history, I started my journey at the end of the cobbled path and walked backwards to the source. Here are two recent stone circles that have caught my ear, and then the source from which much of this magic stems.
The Memory Band
This magnificent gem of a record is becoming my most listened. It has a John Fahey density and sense of propriety to it, but its very much a rock band operating under the auspices of elven folk rock. The opening tracks "Blackwaterslide" and Come Write me Down" are some of the friendliest sounds to hit my ear this year, all fiddles and lazy loping guitar figures. The harmonies on "Come Write me Down" are so genuine and unassuming one could almost expect to hear such plaintive joy at a Unitarian ceremony. But it's the darker, dronier "Brambles" that gets my sleepy third eye staring in their direction. The deep black creek that babbles through this song, accompanied by tambourine pulses and the spectre of foreboding anguish is what I believe the Velvet Underground was after, but they could not let go of the tether of pop music. It's hypnotizing lilt is colored by the slightest of melodies but that color bleeds into everything around you as it plays.
The traditional figures like "Green Grow the Laurel" are executed with such feckless charm and wry sexuality you'd think it a Bonnie 'Prince' Billy joint. The album is centered by the majestic epic 'I Wish I Wish" whose elongated fiddle parts could be in the running as the closing credit music for the age of man, building and building like a bonfire whose flames get hotter with each log placed on the pyramid. I'd be scare to exercise to this music, risking a "Chariots of Fire" moment coming from it's inspirational power. If there is a single, it's "The Light" with its dense fingerpicking and droning rhythms, fitting in with the more Albion moments in the Led Zeppelin catalog. "Why" is a majestically sad number that keeps folding back upon itself, like watching waves dissolve over and over. This whole record bears that sense of melancholy about it, pouring out song after song. The thing to remember about melancholy though is that it is sadness tinged with joy, or joy tinged with sadness or somewhere in between, and the nectar of the lotus that grows at that intersection of joy and sadness attracts a rare humming bird that sounds an awful lot like this band's music.
Unlucky Atlas is a group that came into my view just as I was putting this piece together. Like were I putting a garden together, and wondering, "Hmmm what should go here?" Unlucky Atlas would be a potted seedling coincidentally dropped on my head from a passing plane. This quartet from Chicago, a city most fertile to ornate musical combos but lacking in convivial warmth, defies that stereotype, by creating majestic rambling paths through their dense thickets of guitars, autoharps, cellos and mandolins. The opening title track is the kind of thing whose sense of panic and urgency mimic rushing lost and hurried through the woods. Music of this sort has a tendency to run long, so Unlucky Atlas have been kind enough to separate their opii with short Balkan numbers like "Elegy (for Maria)" and the all too brief rackety ripple of "In Paradisum" each flowing into the larger number after it. "Great Awakening" sparkles in its spare cello pulse and small tinkle so f mandolin, allowing singer Erica Bunger a moment to croon before the maypole undulation of sound commences again.
I just got back form a Renaissance Festival and for better or worse, Unlucky Atlas's music might fit in with the skittery ambiance of minstrel, but the tornados and demons they conjure up when they get going would surely wreak havoc on the weak-accented carnies hawking turkey legs and copper wire jewelry. This music takes that Renaissance form, built off the piercing but soothing rattle of mandolins and makes something fresh and even dangerous out of it. "Forward presence" marches like a funeral dirge, the drumming of a zombie regiment led by a songbird. It is welcome powerful stuff, gleefully smashing the notion that all folk music is placid and flaccid with each swipe of its sword.
The Incredible String Band
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
Now, I expect you are now saying, "Thank you so much, Alex! I've wondered about this wild onion of a genre but was always afraid to taste it in my tongue. But where can I get the real dope?" Well, first, you're welcome, and secondly, the recognized gateway drug for this brand of hallucinatory acoustic music is The Incredible String Band's 1968 masterpiece The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. Possibly the only justifiable use of sitars in a pop music context, Mike Heron and Robin Williamson's theatrical vision of a Renaissance/pop cocktail is a rare flavor indeed. The album is downright silly at points, like the Python-esque (a term I am even more loath to employ Beatlesque) "The Minotaur's Song" but the pastoral tension created in lazy death knells like "Witches hat" hint at a darker purpose than just vaudeville entertainment.
When people talk of this record, they are usually talking the 13-minute opus "A Very Cellular Song" which can be easily seen as the inspiration of the rock student theatre of The Who and the Kinks and Lou Reed. The way it lilts between motifs is ingenious. Harpsichords and handclaps and hornpipes and kazoos co-mingle in festive abandon, encompassing the run of human emotion from revelry to despair within its walls. Such is the schizoid way of The Incredible String band, but there is no greater example of it than in "A Very Cellular Song." The Hangman's Beautiful daughter is both an exhilarating and exhausting listen. You welcome the calliope and water sounds interplay of "The Water Song" after the encyclopedic psychedelia before it. By the time "Swift as the Wind" hits toward the end, you are as spent and howling as the singer is against the rising breeze of the guitars.
To me, The Incredible String Band represents hippie music taken to an extreme length, past the comfortable Cally-forny corniness that bogs that shit in stinking Woodstock mud. Its is violent and virulent; potent, randy even. The mix of noise and drone and melody and comedy and terror is exquisite, and its from this fetid pond that much of the New Weird America has drunk, but it takes a more critical eye, like that exhibited by The Memory Band and Unlucky Atlas, to see beyond the costumes and the patina and find the truth, wriggling like a worm at the center of the apple.
(Alex V. Cook's book of rocknroll observations, 'Darkness, Racket and Twang' is available now from the SideCartel)
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