Along with a revival comes restructuring, a concomitant re-evaluation of canons and an attempt to erect new pillars to uphold the tenets of modern practitioners. And so it goes with our New Weird Americans and freak-folkers. Folk renewal is hardly novel, but with the latest batch of beards and buskers comes an unexpected emphasis on championing the influence of lost souls, those strummers and singers who blipped off the radar after barely even registering in the first place. But with a host of weathered faces seizing the moment, it’s hard to tell if the accolades are deserved or simply a young’un’s attempt to escape the ghosts of folk past.
Always a fan of wandering troubadours, Current 93 experimental-music stalwart David Tibet has done his part to resuscitate Bill Fay and Simon Finn—two British singer-songwriters who recorded briefly in the late 1960s and early 1970s before disappearing completely. Fay dropped out in 1971 after two sublime Decca releases—a self-titled affair drowning in Tin Pan Alley arrangements and the more rock-inclined Time of the Last Persecution, which traded the horns and strings for world-weary apocalyptic tales. He cut most of Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow between 1978 and 1981 with little hope of it seeing release, and today it sounds like it should have stayed mothballed. Synthesizers are gooped and caked almost everywhere, and the album’s mid-section is given over to half-formed ideas. Since Fay sounds here like Phil Collins mangling King Crimson ballads, one would never even know his strength has always been his narratives’ Bob Dylan–like stream of consciousness.
Simon Finn was a more curious story—a young drifter who made a lone album in 1969 that mixed raw Leonard Cohen moves with David Toop’s multi-instrumental blurts. Tibet dug him up in Canada, and after reissuing his harrowing debut
Pass the Distance, helped Finn cut the more spartan Magic Moments. But pared down to just guitar and violin, Finn’s newer material doesn’t kick in the same way. Long gone is the tremulant man-boy wail and clattering accompaniment, replaced instead with a faux–James Taylor whine that turns his lyrics about bloodletting and demons into adolescent goth mash notes.
Gary Higgins made Red Hash in 1973 while waiting to serve a drug bid. Jailed and unable to promote it, he saw the album slip through cracks. But Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny celebrated the man, and with the aid of Drag City brought him back to the fore. Fully restored, Higgins’s sole LP channels the psych-folk vein into personally bleak territory, reverberating with sinewy smoke and pensive brooding. Directions unknown and outlooks grim, Higgins transcended his own fate with his plaintive strums and simple whispers. Back onstage this year, the man is poised to reclaim the path his life was so rudely pushed from.
Vashti Bunyan has been the most celebrated of this lot, blessed with a quivering whisper that bespeaks dignity where it lacks sheer power. Now that she’s recorded with both the Animal Collective and Devendra Banhart,
Lookaftering sees the chanteuse following up her iconic debut 35 years later without missing a beat. Two Espers and one Joanna Newsom help in the effort, but they remain strictly peripheral. Held to guitar and piano with simple arrangements, Bunyan proves she wasn’t just a failed project of Nick Drake’s producer Joe Boyd. Her beautiful lilt and casual demeanor remain unchanged, and it’s hard to tell that she last recorded three decades ago.
A simple lack of history is what makes nodding to these influences so fashionable. There were no public meltdowns, no rehab stints, no predictable descents into the bowels of AOR hell, no public cases of spousal abuse. These resurrections highlight a fundamental difference (or a desire for one) between the folk of new and old. And sure, the superlatives are hardly ever warranted, but that doesn’t stop the excursions from being at least mildly interesting even in the case of a miss. Here’s the lesson learned, for those without an audience today: Apparently patience is some kind of virtue after all.