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V/A - The Golden Apples of the Sun / Million Tongues Festival

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Artist: V/A

Album: The Golden Apples of the Sun / Million Tongues Festival

Label: Bastet

Review date: Nov. 10, 2004

The Bastet label is a subdivision of Arthur magazine that’s dedicated to documenting, in compact disc form, artists whose work resonates with the magazine’s core belief system. The editorial policy of Arthur mainman Jay Babcock has always favoured open systems and inclusive politics: if the tone of the magazine can lapse into ‘60s-referencing psychobabble and over-generalizing leftist dogmatics, one gets the sense from reading Arthur that Babcock’s intent is to further the countercultural aims of the six-oh milieu. It works, perhaps, to think of Arthur as a certain subculture’s equal to the East Village Other, or as an expanded, cross-media version of the mid 1960s Film Culture journals, with Babcock playing the benevolent curator a la FC’s Jonas Mekas.

With The Golden Apples of the Sun, Babcock handed over the curatorial reigns to new folk poster-child Devendra Banhart. Having the aesthetic approval and the wax-seal of Banhart is doubtlessly part of the appeal - a good sales pitch - but Banhart’s attempt to document the ‘new folk underground’ is surprisingly open-armed. The Golden Apples of the Sun captures some of the myth-building and mystery of said underground. The puzzle at the core of the previous sentence, of course, is how did folk music become so de rigueur among the underground? To what generational/aesthetic shift can it be index-linked? That’s a hard question to answer, and listening to The Golden Apples of the Sun, things are no clearer. If anything, the sappiest songs on the disc, like Iron and Wine’s “Fever Dream”, or Devendra’s own “Rejoicing in the Hands”, hint that the folk renaissance is tied rather more firmly to post-James Taylor easy listening than most of its followers would acknowledge.

Devendra is an interesting case. Much is made of his otherworldly presence, but Banhart just seems like a questing kid to me - nothing wrong with that, and if your influences are Karen Dalton and Tyrannosaurus Rex, then good luck to you, traveller. But listening to Banhart’s wispy, negligible voice, I can’t help but think he’s closer to an anaemic version of ex-Folk Implosion member John Davis, all whistly lisp and precious enunciation. On “Rejoicing in the Hands” Banhart duets with Vashti Bunyan, whose voice, though similar at first glance, has a poise and grace beyond Banhart’s years. If anything - and in direct response to other observations about the wistful, man-child whispering of the current crop of new folk vocalising - it’s the strident, self-assured voices on Golden Apples that bewitch: Antony’s sweeping, heartbreaking lament, “The Lake”, Mira Billotte’s earthed drawl through White Magic’s “Don’t Need”, and the compilation’s crowning moment, Vetiver’s “Angels’ Share”. Vetiver’s songs - as evidenced by their brilliant self-titled album - don’t need to carry the weight of folk mysticism to make their point: Andy Cabic’s voice, shadowed here by Hope Sandoval, is rich, completely unforced, and his songs are unencumbered by genre-based or ideological constraints. Whereas some of the songwriters on Golden Apples sound as though they’re trying a little too hard to be folk musicians, or to perform their emotional connection with their material, Cabic - to paraphrase Greil Marcus’ words on another performer - just turns up and does his thing, and we’re all the better for it.

Of course, it’s never just about the voice. Other highlights on Golden Apples come from the child’s clutch of solo acoustic guitar performances dotted throughout the disc, from Currituck Co., Jack Rose, and Matt Valentine. All three have developed different approaches to the form - Kevin Barker of Currituck is the arch-traditionalist, taking the best lessons from Fahey’s less extended pieces, while Rose makes explicit the relationship between the American folk-guitar tradition and Indian classical, spooling out an unencumbered threnody for six strings. Valentine’s piece, which had already appeared on his 1999 solo CD-R I Am Burning One With God but Cocola if I’m Peaking Which Way is the Sky?, is short - it barely reaches one minute - and sends downward strums through a vast, waterlogged tremolo unit, Valentine sighing and weaving over the top, linking spiderwebs of microtones between the guitar strings. The other great soloist of the community, Ben Chasny, offers up one of his psychedelic song miniatures, “Hazy SF”; I’ve always been leery of this side of Six Organs of Admittance, due to Chasny’s thin, nasal voice, but he sounds warmer here, more self-assured, and the song is charming.

The Golden Apples of the Sun could have devolved into a slight, throwaway collection of faux-naif, quote-unquote mystical/mythical folk music tropes: a handy index of folk music’s degeneration from everyday documentation to ham-fisted theatrical gesture. No compilation is perfect, and there is some example of said gestures: contributions from Espers, Entrance, CocoRosie and Iron and Wine are shaped by adherence to questionable archetypes. It’s the artists sitting closest to received wisdom of what constitutes traditional folk songwriting that sound out-of-place here. The best performances on The Golden Apples of the Sun succeed by folding in different approaches, or (as in the case of Vetiver or Matt Valentine) just not giving a damn and channelling direct from one’s internal voice.

There’s not much crossover between Golden Apples and Million Tongues: just Espers and Matt Valentine. The Million Tongues compilation serves as a guiding hand for the festival of the same name, curated (as was the disc) by the Plastic Crimewave himself, Mr. Krakow. The festival took place in Chicago in August 2004, so it’s all a bit after the fact. But if you look at the festival as some kind of instructive text for today’s psychedelic underground, the compilation does succeed in documenting a few key strands.

The first half of Million Tongues is all about the overdriven hum of guitar amplifiers, the skybursting potential of 1,000 rock trios firing into the air with all the giddy propulsion of deflating balloons. As is often the case with this form of overdriven, free-form psych rock, the Japanese contributors win out, with LSD-March offering “Rokoku No Hono”, a song that strains at its boundaries, veins popping out of Shinsuke Michishita and Masami Kawaguchi’s arms as they wrench bowdlerised blues-rock forms out of their guitars, flinted and jagged. The trio of Jutok Kaneko, Shimura Koji and Takuya Nishimura is even more effective, a thin wedge of a composition seemingly carved out of a longer recording session. Kaneko’s writing and playing in Kousokuya justifies the oft-quoted description of him as Japan’s “other man dressed in black”, and here his guitar is a multi-headed snake being charmed out of its hole by the blessedly illogical playing of Koji and Nishimura. The other ‘psych rock’ tracks on the compilation, while functional, don’t quite make the same leap: these pieces are more about psych as gesture.

The same problem haunts some of the acoustic tracks that comprise the main of the Million Tongues. As with the weaker moments on Golden Apples, many of the songs here seem unessential, a performative grab at folk’s emotional/mystical resonances - pieces by Spires That in the Sunset Rise and Simon Finn sound, by turns, too histrionic or too earnest. Espers come across as precious and a little contrived; Josephine Foster’s beautiful voice (displayed to its fullest on her Golden Apples contribution) is submerged by the ‘rock’ backing of her group The Supposed. The further ‘out’ things get, the better, the more interesting: Matt Valentine illuminates his relationship to protean American blues forms on “The Enchanted Cocola #2” - indeed, it would be interesting to re-route popular reception of Valentine’s music away from the ‘free-folk’ axis and back toward some kind of grounding as part of a tributary sprung from early 20th century American blues. His erstwhile band member PG Six offers a live improvisation on “The Unteleported Man” which utilizes Gubler’s virtuoso playing to exploratory ends, emptying little whirlpools of notes and threading needlepoint phrases around the core of the song. And the debut recording by Taurpis Tula, the duo of Heather Leigh Murray (of Charalambides) and David Keenan, is seriously beautiful, a submerged and low-lit selection of muddied, dark blue sounds coaxed out of the deep by Murray’s patient, wordless vocalisations.

But my problem with much of Million Tongues, and ergo with much of what passes for the ‘psychedelic underground’, is that it’s too in thrall to its history: too much of the music sounds too indebted to the past, as opposed to treating history as something to get past. Psychedelia always struck me as chemically-assisted futurism, where being ‘out of time’ actually propelled you beyond the current time: some kind of gear-stick shift into other zones. Million Tongues was doubtless a blast of a festival, and there’s enough great music on the associated compilation, but one sometimes has to ask, whose psychedelia is this?

By Jon Dale

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