Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999: 

John Fahey, Best of the Vanguard Years (Vanguard)

Now that renowned cult guitarist (a reasonable contradiction in terms, here) John Fahey is lauded and embraced by the likes of noisemaker/critic's darling/aging Sonic Youth Thurston Moore and his crowd, I guess it's safe for the industry to re-release some of his vintage tracks. Not that Best of the Vanguard Years serves simply as a way for Vanguard to generate some quick dough without sinking a wad of venture capital into the project. No, this is one meritorious reissue, questionable motives aside.

Fahey really blew some minds when he first entered the post-coffeehouse/pre-hippie scene of the early '60s. The origins of his music were easy enough to discern (rural blues, gospel, Merle Travis-style country fingerpicking), but once these genres were shoved through the very unique Fahey filter, many people just didn't know what to make of the results. Of course, those with a clue wore down the grooves of his quirky records with a passion and knowing devotion akin to that displayed by the sort of campus bookworms who carried dog-eared copies of Catcher in the Rye everywhere they went.

In the early '70s, Fahey took it a bit further on two albums recorded for Vanguard Records. The Yellow Princess and Requia and Other Compositions for Guitar Solo sold poorly and appalled many of his fans. The music on Best of the Vanguard Years comes straight from those releases.

On a few tracks here, Fahey and a man named Barry Hansen (a friend and assistant who would later morph into Dr. Demento) delighted in juxtaposing Fahey's shimmering acoustic guitar with found noises and sound effects. "The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee" and "Requiem for Molly (Part 3)" stand as two of the most audacious examples of that particular brand of mischief. However, it's important to note that John Fahey doesn't require anything more than an acoustic six-string to create some definitively oddball music, as is demonstrated throughout this lengthy CD (Best of the Vanguard Years is well over an hour long). It's equally important to clearly state that, though certainly idiosyncratic, these works should by no means be categorized as "novelty music." This stuff was created by a serious, virtuoso guitarist.

Fahey's star fell hard during the '80s. Diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, alcoholism, and general malaise, he ended up homeless and all but forgotten. But in 1994 Barry Hansen and Rhino Records compiled a 2-CD John Fahey retrospective, and people started getting interested again. Today, the seventysomething Fahey is actively pursuing the muse and his revived career.

Best of the Vanguard Years is really an interesting and rewarding listen. And the digitally remastered sound quality is excellent. Certainly, anyone with a modicum of fondness for fingerstyle acoustic guitar should put down the Flyer now and run out for a copy of this CD. -- Stephen Grimstead


Bicycle, Bicycle (Capricorn)

You just can't keep from liking Kurt Liebert and the lighthearted music he makes under the umbrella of Bicycle. Main man Liebert and his fellow traveler and co-writer, Forrest Burtnette, literally bicycled more than 5,500 miles around the United States, somehow managing to play their music wherever they stopped at night.

In addition to achieving some notice through this arduous stunt, Liebert and Burtnette also defined the parameters of Bicycle's music, as wide and diverse as their travel path. The result is a grin-filled collection of 14 snappy songs on their Capricorn debut titled, not surprisingly, Bicycle. For lack of a better term, I'm going to call this music salad-shooter pop, because a number of styles and motifs are thrown together and then spit out all over the place.

Now that's not to imply that Bicycle's music is just some random influences mixed up and haphazardly regurgitated. There's a definite sensibility at work here, and you can blame Kurt Liebert for all the good times one is bound to experience from Bicycle (both the band and the disc). For the first time in a long while, here is a CD that doesn't have any hidden agendas or political intent, and most importantly, no self-pity or hopelessness.

If I had to boil the Bicycle experience down to one word, it would be "fun" -- an ingredient sorely lacking in most of today's music. From the album's catchy opener, "68," all the way through to the last track, "earthquake," Liebert never fails to entertain (and the three songs attributed to Burtnette are just as slick and charming).

This is one Bicycle worth riding again and again. I hope Liebert keeps on foisting his lively minstrelsy upon a festivity-starved public for many years to come. Bicycle (the band) and Bicycle (the album) add up to the musical equivalent of a smile, and that's a welcome riff that bears repeating. -- David D. Duncan


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