Mellow mellow. . .
This is more of a full band affair for Mike. Not crazy about it. It gets too comfortable in its stock "new age" shoes for my tastes. Sure, Aerial Boundaries had that kind of ethereal 80's new age production to it, but what struck me about that one was the sparseness of the whole thing. Here, it just sounds cheesy and overwrought. A concept album of sorts, it hits me as a case of forced creativity. Really like when Mike just plays his guitar, but unfortunately, there's not enough of that here to make this album anything more than a curiosity. Not even David Crosby and Graham Nash could save this one (they contribute background harmonies to the one vocal number on the album, 'I Carry Your Heart').
T. Rex — Unicorn (1969)
I know these early, pre-Electric Warrior T. Rex albums are generally nobody's favorite anything, but I like all of the ones I've managed to find. Granted, never more than anything from Electric Warrior onward, but I find them to be pretty fun, oftentimes underrated albums of quirky British folk-pop. And this one is no different, starting off with the somehow Beach Boys-esque 'Chariots of Silk.' The syncopated piano chords of 'Cat Black' fill out one of the album's biggest productions (and catchiest tunes), while the title track rides a droney, building backdrop to pure delight. Most of the tracks are between two and three minutes in length, so things fly by really quickly (especially for a sixteen track, fourty minute affair). But there's just an abundance of great, haunting melodies on display here. Stuff like 'Evenings of Damask' or 'Iscariot' is just strong. The whole thing's great and the sequencing is mostly to thank for that, as songs just flow in and out of one another with pure chemistry. Really does get better the more you listen to it.
Michael Hedges — Breakfast in the Field (1981)
Especially having heard his later stuff first, there's a sense right away that this album is just a demo tape for Michael Hedges. The first track ('Layover') is a good manifesto for the whole album: a short, thoughtful melody is meditated and danced around, none of the extra virtuoso showboat moments are there and the production is immediate and intimate, with none of the extra effects or polish present. With the production being what it is, there is a bit more of an acoustic folky vibe to this one. A song like 'The Unexpected Visitor' is much closer to John Fahey than anything else Michael would probably ever do, for instance. And, in that respect, for some people, it might be the last good Michael Hedges album. Overall, really wonderful and tuneful music, considering how sparse it is. Really like how thoughtful and introspective it becomes at certain points (the closer and only trio performance, 'Lenono', is probably my favorite tune on the album, for instance). Good stuff.
Joan Baez — From Every Stage (1975)
You know, Joan Baez just seems like one of those old musicians that has a ginormous back catalogue that I just conveniently ignored for a long time, despite how closely linked she is to one of my favorites. This two record live album from her 1975 tour is titled as such because it features an all acoustic first half, an all electric second half and many songs from throughout her career up until that point. I can't say I'm blown away. The acoustic half presents probably what has been my problem along: I'm just not crazy about her voice. Too much vibrato, plain and simple. Good selection of tunes, though (especially appreciated the Leonard Cohen cover). The electric half on record two features a much slicker approach and and equally as strong selection of tunes. 'Diamonds and Rust' was a big single at the time and the band (featuring such big names as James Jamerson and Larry Carlton) gives it a rendition that mirrors its studio counterpart pretty faithfully. Still, a good song is a good, no matter the setting. I wanted to go for an overview sort of album as my first taste, but I can't help but think I could've made a much better selection. Dah well.
William Ackerman — The Search for the Turtle's Navel (a/k/a In Search of the Turtle's Navel) (1976)
The basis for new age? Or just a darned good John Fahey imitation? I can't even say. I don't know enough about either thing. Just have a listen to the solo acoustic guitar, multi-movement opener 'The Pink Chiffon Tricycle Queen' and decide for yourself. As far as I knew, new age music didn't have twang, but here it is, full twang of 'The Second Great Torsion Bar Overland Of West Townshend, Vermont, Jose Pepsi Attending', on Windham Hill records and everything (the first release in that catalogue, in fact). If I were me at a younger age, I'd have stayed away from the new age section for the rest of my life. I mean, seriously: how is this new age music? I always pictured Yanni. Not actual substance or thought, nor a general respect for space within music. Oh well. To the new age section! In search of more Pentangle-inspired gems like 'Windham Mary.' That's a good thought too: his guitar seems very informed of John Renbourn's style. Just check this live performance of 'Processional' and anticipate Jacqui's entrance (spoiler: it never actually happens, but should). Actually, that's a good comparison, isn't it? I can't think of a better bridge between trippy folk rock guitarists like John Martyn, Nick Drake and John Renbourn and their post-modern counterparts like Robin Guthrie and Vini Reilly than the so-called "new age" guitarists like Ackerman and Michael Hedges. There's certainly a lot more common ground between all parties than first meets the eye (er, ear). This one was Ackerman's first album and he did lots more. I have some homework to do.
William Ackerman — It Takes A Year (1977)
Although recorded in 1977, the songs on this album date back to being composed as early as 1970. I guess the one that people remember from this album is the first track, 'The Bricklayer's Beautiful Daughter.' And that's a good one, for sure. The title track does venture awful close to new age cheesiness with the sounds of waves being audible in the mix (but then again, I'm reminded of a John Martyn song with similar characteristics from around the same time and that's one of my favorite songs of all time — am I letting my pre-conceived ideas about the record label this is on affect my thoughts on the actual music again?). 'The Townshend Shuffle' is a great track and is straight back into pseudo-bluegrass territory (I get impressions of a less technical Leo Kottke here — not bad at all!). The tracks 'Rain Sequence' and 'The Search for the Turtle's Navel' successfully bridge the gap for me between the folkies and the new wavers. It's not really a question of whether or not everybody involved was aware of each other. The progression was there, regardless. The chord progressions respect the folk music that came before them, but simultaneously look inward towards something altogether different. I can see how someone could successfully argue that a song like 'The Search for the Turtle's Navel' is new age music. I can also see how someone could successfully argue that it's folk music. Pretty remarkable stuff, when you consider that.
Harold Budd — Lovely Thunder (1986)
After owning several albums where he is a collaborative player for quite some time, I have been more than ready to venture into Harold Budd's catalogue. When this album kicked off with 'The Gunfighter', I knew I was in for something good. Yes, it's definitely ambient music, but it has a very dark, almost post-punky undertone to it. Really eerie music, but in a good, rewarding way. I picked up this album by chance, because it was what was available to me at the time, but in a serendipitous occurrence, this album contains a re-touching of a song from Harold's collaboration with the Cocteau Twins. The tune (originally titled 'Memory Gongs' on that album) is re-imagined here as 'Flowered Knife Shadows (for Simon Raymonde).' Side two of the album is taken up entirely by a piece called 'Gypsy Violin' and it's done in the tradition of the great sidelong Brian Eno epics, but it's actually a bit closer to what Jon Hassell was up to at the time. Definitely one to experience properly on headphones, but it does have that all-encompassing, dipped into another atmosphere feeling of the best of this stuff. It's good. Real good.