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V/A - American Primitive Vol. II

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Artist: V/A

Album: American Primitive Vol. II

Label: Revenant

Review date: Oct. 10, 2005

John Fahey liked the idea of revenants, spirits returning after a long absence, so much that he gave that name to the record label that was probably the crowning achievement of his late career. The imprint issued the lost fourth volume of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the brilliant gospel set American Primitive Vol. I, and two boxed sets, Charley Patton’s Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues and Albert Ayler’s Holy Ghost, that raised the bar for what could be done with the format to a height that no one else has cleared. Fahey’s gone now but the label lives on, and it’s honored him by issuing one of the last projects he developed before he died.

American Primitive Vol. II dips more deeply into the well of 78 rpm records made between the world wars that filled American Primitive Vol. I; where the first set focused on ecstatic sacred music, the new one is mostly secular. Volume II is devoted to what would, in later years, be known as one-hit wonders, people who only made a couple records. The reasons for their obscurity vary; some were in prison, some too challenging, and some were just plain weird. For Fahey and the surviving Revenant team, their anonymity is essential to their appeal, evidence that these artists had a line on some fundamental truth. They’re onto something; no disrespect to Robert Johnson or the Carter Family, but the unadulterated force and sheer freakishness of Volume II’s 50 rags, blues, sales pitches, romantic come-ons, mortal laments, and fantastical tales cast a spell that cannot be denied. Revenant’s design team has come up with a package that amplifies the music’s mystery. The gatefold cover’s woodcut image of an anonymous woman playing a lyre against a backdrop of mountains and stars seems to suggest that the music flows through her from heaven and earth. The 40-page booklet includes no pictures, and the annotation runs more to Coley-esque fulmination than sober exposition. One objection; each disc’s running order really ought to be printed on the wraparound obi so it would not be necessary to page through the booklet every time you want to know who’s singing.

The musicians on Volume II passed on decades ago, but their music feels incredibly alive. The rawness of the delivery is often matched by the original medium — some of the source records have as much surface noise as music — but the sentiments and performances are even rougher. Mattie May Thomas’s unrepentant jailhouse hollers tell tough tails of wrongdoing and survival with such elegant turns of phrase that any Pulitzer Prize winner would envy her, all the while making you really glad that you’re not alone with her in a room and a sharp object. Tommy Settlers’ falsetto twists and spirals around rudimentary drumbeats with such aplomb that you’d swear he could thread a needle with his voice, blindfolded; Geeshie Wiley could drop the temperature in the plasticdome of your choice by thirty degrees with hers. Red Hot Old Mose’s efforts to sell you shrimp and tamales are so joyous and lusty that you’ll believe his wares will tame your real troubles, and the Nugrape Twins’ dual offers of salvation at the hands of Jesus and soda pop will have you standing in both lines, cash in hand. And they’re just a few of the revenant spirits summoned by American Primitive Vol. II.

By Bill Meyer

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