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V/A - The Great Koonaklaster

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Artist: V/A

Album: The Great Koonaklaster

Label: Table of the Elements

Review date: Jul. 9, 2007

What the hell is a Koonaklaster? I first encountered the word in the liner notes to John Fahey’s collaboration with Cul De Sac, The Epiphany of Glenn Jones. Cul De Sac’s guitarist Jones reckoned that the legendarily difficult project – which almost foundered upon the disharmony between his preconceived notions and hero worship on the one hand and Fahey’s refusal to go along with such programs on the other – got a bit easier when Fahey scored a dubious objét d’art at a thrift store. He invited the band to worship it, presumably instead of himself. Fahey despised hero-worship, and one has to wonder what he’d make of being the subject of several tribute records since his death. One, compiled by M. Ward, reflects his impact on rustic indie rock; another assembled by his friends memorializes their old picking buddy. Neither really acknowledges the challenging final phase of Fahey’s career, during which he did everything he could to dispel the iconographic window dressing that had been draped about him and his earlier work. Perhaps Koonaklaster = Iconoclast? It falls to this third tribute, compiled by the label that issued some of those redefining efforts, to honor the Koonaklaster.

None of the 11 musicians involved do so by playing a Fahey composition, although a few contribute music typical of their own work that also displays John’s influence. Jack Rose, who makes no bones about the influence the big man has had on his own work, gets things underway with a voluptuous live excursion through his Indian-flavored lap steel epic, “Now That I Am A Man Full Grown.” It was recorded at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, which was the site of the concert that inaugurated Fahey’s association with Table Of The Elements. Distant echoes of that Hindustani vibe also sound in Kentuckian R. Keenan Lawler’s splendidly vertiginous National steel guitar solo “I Used to Strive for a Tree, Now I Thrive on a Mountain” and Sir Richard Bishop’s layered, happily evil “Hood River Lap Dance”; the latter’s electronic seasoning closely recalls Fahey’s most experimental album Womblife. Lichens represents both the discontinuous picking and the subliminal drones that Fahey explored on City Of Refuge; No Neck Blues Band celebrates the man’s pranksterism with a barely listenable bit of sampler-based silliness. Greg Malcolm updates John’s early engagement with pre-rock and roll popular song on the slightly sodden waltz “Spanish Flang Dang,” while Ben Vida unironically summons the ghost of Fare Forward Voyagers, Fahey’s ’70s stab at epic devotional music. Michael Hurley’s electric piano and vocal rendition of “My Babe” uses two instruments decidedly scarce in Fahey’s oeuvre to represent the blues that Fahey borrowed from so heavily in his early years.

A couple inclusions seem mistaken despite their musical merits. New Zealander Pumice’s detuned plucking and electronic sputter on “Ceremonial Knives” has more in common with Alastair Galbraith or Sebadoh than anything Fahey ever did, and while the members of Badgerlore are no doubt as sympathetic to John’s endeavors as I am to their spacey improvising, “Red Apple” sheds no light on anything the big man ever did. One suspects the presence of these two tracks has more to do with the artists’ involvement with other recent label-associated releases. But even that’s Fahey-esque in a way; despite his contrarian ways, he really did care about the business end of things, and he was always more concerned about the now and the next than any conceptual consistency.

Recent TotE MVP David Daniell pulls it all together with the marvelous “Crossing the Susquehanna River Bridge,” which might also serve as an audio evocation of John’s final crossing. Fahey played a lot of guitars in his life, named plenty of tunes after rivers, actually recorded a bridge for one early piece of musique concrete, and strove for his own peculiar notion of an “industrial” sound in his later collages. Daniell pulls all that and more into an auditory black hole, sucks the light and mass out of it all, then turns it inside out for a blissful gospel stroll on the other side.

By Bill Meyer

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