The finger-picking acoustic guitar instrumental is a world unto itself. The biggest continent on this world is variously named "the Takoma sound," for the John Fahey label that did so much to promote the style, and American Primitive Guitar, Fahey's choice of genre name. Born (though it didn't know it at the time) in the 1950s folk movement, it matured in the anything-goes '60s (extending into the '70s), and interest in it -- underground for so many years -- has revived at the same time as the resurrection of psychedelic folk. A key early figure in both fields is the late Sandy Bull, and some artists such as Jack Rose extend that dual legacy, but this brilliantly programmed new compilation focuses on the more purist vision.
The repertoire here -- all solo except for two duos -- falls into three categories. Four vintage recordings offer stylistic context. On the one hand, there are the aforementioned giants of the style, Fahey and Bull. Fahey's represented by his arrangement of "O Holy Night" (from a 1991 Christmas album), while collectors will rejoice at the first issue of an untitled Bull track circa 1996, catching him in a relatively traditional mood by his standards. On the other hand are two artists known mostly to connoisseurs. The title track is a tribute to Fahey by Max Ochs (cousin of Phil Ochs). A previously unreleased 1969 recording of "Imaginational Anthem" closes the disc; a 2004 version opens it. Harry Taussig is known slightly from inclusion on a 1967 Takoma sampler, but also released a privately pressed album, Fate Is Only Once, in 1965; "Dorian Sonata," which explores the archaic sound of the titular mode, is taken from that album, which Tompkins Square plans to reissue soon.
On a related note, Tompkins Square tracked down and recorded some old-timers for this set. Suni McGrath's brightly driving "Train Zâ" is from an upcoming Tompkins Square album, his first new studio effort since 1972. Steve Mann played with some big names on the San Francisco Bay Area scene in the 60s; "My Thoughts Began to Crystallize" is the first recording of a catchy tune he wrote back then and Mann's first recording in 27 years. Mann is also heard in duet with Janet Smith on "Daemon Lover Variations," Smith's arrangement of a traditional tune. Smith, who has been caring for Mann (who's in poor health), is an artist in her own right who released a 1968 album on Takoma. Bob Hadley is pretty obscure, another Fahey acolyte. His "Celtic Reverie" throbs and sparkles darkly. Bern Nix is of a somewhat younger generation but has still been paying his dues for decades, mostly in jazz (most famously with Ornette Coleman's Prime Time). He's making an album for Tompkins Square, his first solo effort, from which we hear the title track, "Low Barometer," the most rhythmically free track here.
Finally, there are the younger players who are expanding on this tradition. Three of them made recordings specifically for this disc. Brad Barr of The Slip sounds influenced by Bull on the raga-esque intro of "Bouba's Bounce," which then turns into a droning, bluesy groove. Harris Newman (Sackville) represents Canada and offers "Lake Shore Drive (Slight Return)," another take on a Faheyesque track from Newman's second album. Glenn Jones (Cul de Sac) chugs along bluesily on "The Little Dog's Day," full of bent notes. Jack Rose of Pelt is heard "live" on his "White Mule III" working up an ecstatic explosion of dense sound. Gyan Riley plays in concert with his famous father, Minimalism pioneer Terry Riley (here on piano). The combination of guitar and piano on "La Cigale" (The Locust) stands in luxurious contrast to the rest of the disc. The only artist here who could be said to be mainstream is also, I think, the youngest, Kaki King. Easily the prettiest song here and a nice change from the surrounding austerity, "Night After Sidewalk" is taken from her 2003 debut Everybody Loves You; she has since issued an album on Epic.
Devotees of acoustic guitar instrumentals will find this collection's treasure troves of new and rare tracks irresistible. Neophytes can use it for an excellent introduction to the style. Anyone unable to find the CD at their local store can go to www.TompkinsSquare.com. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.