Trembling Bells

Carbeth(Honest Jon’s 2009)

England graced us with so many psych-folk icons in the 1960s. Their troubadours borrowed from the same pages as their American counterparts, but imbued it with a stately grandeur lacking in the States. Both were indebted to the blues, folk, psychedelia and country, but the British interpreted country quite literally as their output celebrated the rural life and its mundane, yet magical charms. This is one big fucking generalization hovering in the air like a pinata waiting to be whacked by shephard’s staff, but I always felt the American point of view was one of protest and restless ennui where the bands like Fairport Convention Pentangle and Incredible String Band were more interested in celebrating tradition, mother nature and the epehemeral nature of life. Sure, hippies on all continents were singing about long-haired beauties, narcotics and peaceful vibes, but the Americans raised their fists in the air while the British dug theirs into the earth and were inextricably tied to the surroundings in which they were raised.

Not surprisingly, this era has been mined so often that it’s kind of hard to be floored by an album that owes so much to a particular genre. Sure, people have put their own stamp on English psych-folk by slathering it in proggy excess like the Espers, ringing feedback like select shoegazers or just aimed for a faithful interpretation of its ample vibes. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to duplicate the pipes of a Sandy Denny or Jacqui McPhee or the meandering warble of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. It is the x-factor that renders the rest pretenders to a die-cast that is not easily reproduced or imitated. Then you hear Trembling Bells’ vocalist Lavinia Blackwell sing and you wonder where this voice has been all of your life. She’s no dead ringer for Denny, but I wouldn’t want her to be, but her voice soars like her idols and she squeezes plenty of pathos into every note. However, what sets Trembling Bells apart from the rest is that they possess the melancholy grace of their influences, yet inject enough subtle eccentricities into their instrumentation that they are entirely their own creation.

Carbeth is their debut and its success isn’t surprising since their ranks include guitarist Ben Reynolds, who gets no press, but blew me away a few years back with a series of cdrs that lulled me to sleep many a night. Drummer Alex Neilson has played with Jandek, Baby Dee, Alasdair Roberts and Will Oldham and his improvisational background lends a loosey-goosey demeanor to the percussion. In short, there is a ramshackle refinement to this music and it soars where so many kindred spirits have fallen flat. There is a triumphant quality to this album where you get the sense that they are hitting on all cylinders, albeit in the most mellow way possible. If it was released in 1967, everyone would embrace it as a godsend, but it has been relegated as an afterthought a year after its release. That’s a shame since it deserves so much more respect and devotion than a cult following. Carbeth is the real deal and taps into that awe one gets when hearing Unhalfbricking or Wee Tam and the Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter at 3am. In my admittedly biased world, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Richard Thompson

Small Town Romance (Hannibal 1984)

When one first encounters an artist with a vast discography, it is all too easy to reach for the accepted classics only to ignore the many back alleys and sidebars that make vast discographies so intruiging and rewarding. God knows that Richard Thompson’s solo work, collaborations with Linda Thompson as well as Fairport Convention are rife with worthwhile peaks and humdrum valleys. Thompson’s solo work of the mid 80s to the present gets ignored by anyone who doesn’t think that Ron Sexsmith and Billy Bragg are the bees knees. Actually, that is quite a slice of hyperbole, but folks rightfully gush over his brilliance in the 60s and 70s at the expense of great records like Rumour and Sigh, Amnesia and Mock Tudor. Yeah, they have their fannypack and granola munching moments, but musicians mature and evolve to varying degrees of success. However, Small Town Romance,  a live album recorded in 1982, exposes all of the sores and scabs of his divorce while exposing a vulnerable side of Thompson as he begins anew without his muse.

You can sense the hurt emanating from his voice and general demeanor as he plays. This is wholly unsurprising since 1982 was the year of his divorce from Linda Thompson. These internal and external conflicts fueled their collaborations and provided an edge lacking from his later work. Here, the edge has dulled and the furnace has gone cold. All that is left are broken pieces and he dutifully attempts to rearrange them on Small Town Romance.  He seems a bit lost without his usual foil when he tackles the songs they used to sing together. My heart really goes out to him on this one despite his own contributions to this sad conclusion.

There is one song in particular that really floors me and forces me to reflect on my own fuckups. “Beat the Retreat” deals with how he was prone to fuck things up. but took comfort in the fact that he could always retreat and find comfort in the arms of his love. On Small Town Romance, the door has been slammed shut and his backpedaling is only met by an empty bed.

Beat my retreat, back home to you
Beat my retreat, back home to you
I’m burning all my bridges
I’m burning all my bridges
I’m burning all my bridges
I’m running back home to you

Trailing my colours, back home to you
Trailing my colours, back home to you
This world is filled with sadness
This world is filled with sadness
This world is filled with sadness
I’m running back home to you

Follow the drum, back home to you
Follow the drum, back home to you
There was no sense in my leaving
There was no sense in my leaving
There was no sense in my leaving
I’m running back home to you

There is something so romantic, but flawed about the sentiment of this song. It is all about a man who can never decide what the hell he wants and blows things to holy hell, but expects his partner to welcome with open arms. There is also a deep sense of regret that permeates this song, but a sense of warmth and hope that there is someone out there in this cold world that loves you no matter what. I want to simultaneously punch and hug the man since he obviously has taken liberties, but really loves her to death and hates himself for every misstep.

It is one of those few showstoppers that renders the rest of the performances somewhat impotent by comparison. I used toincessantly listen to this song at the expense of the others. However, years have passed and the rest of the album feels like an old friend with a ton of hubris weighing it down at every turn.

John Fahey

The Yellow Princess (Vanguard 1969)

There are so many facets of John Fahey’s career that it is hard to pick a favorite. I love Red Cross the best of his late period due to its exquisite mix of ambient smears and Gershwin and Irving Berlin Covers as well as the brass band excursions on Of Rivers and Religions. Of course, his early albums occupy a dear place in my heart due to their role in opening my eyes to the land of Folkways, Vanguard and a cadre of shaggy dog folkies and burnouts. However, The Yellow Princess is the one listened to most because it is positively overflowing with melancholy and members of Spirit are on hand to spin the bottle in some unforseen directions.

This rare collaboration pays dividends on “Dance of the Inhabitants of the Invisible City of Bladensburg” which begins with the crash of drums before transitioning into familiar finger picking until the coda breaks into a bluesy swagger. Spirit drummer Kevin Kelly also twists Fahey into new shapes on “March! For Martin Luther King” where a mournful, funereal beat keeps the time while a beautifully evocative series of strums pay tribute to a fallen hero. You can almost envision a casket being carried while the duo exorcised their sadness in song.

Fahey always had a predilection for odd musique concrete by way of the acoustic guitar. Some of my favorite tracks of America, Womblife and City of Refuge were his most unhinged, but “The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee” takes the cake. It sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the folksy meanderings, but a whistling refrain humorously mimics the cry of a train as spare percusssion mimics the chug of a broken down train. An ominous buzz hovers over the short instrumental and provides an eerie atmosphere to accompany the wholesome whistle that echoes throughout it. It ain’t much, but it has stuck with me long after it is removed from the stereo.

I guess The Yellow Princess stands out among the rest because it tackled new horizons for only a moment, but left me wanting so much more that was never fulfilled. Yes, he made countless other albums, but none quite like this.

Tim Hardin

This is Tim Hardin (Edsel 1967)

My true love is the folk/psych/country scene of the late 60s and early 70s, but I haven’t really tackled much of it on this blog as of yet. However, I was listening to Tim Hardin tonight and figured that this is the time to usher in a series of posts devoted to the drug-addled and all-too sensitive souls who battled their demons in song. Tim Hardin springs to mind as my first post since his heroin habit cut short a career that should have wormed its way into more hearts and minds that it did.

Tim Hardin definitely falls into the esteemed camp occupied by Fred Neil and Tim Buckley. His bluesy, soulful and psychedelic take on folk is just as moving and soul destroying as Howling Wolf and Robert Johnson. History places too much weight upon the classic bluesmen and ignores the emotional depths that the fucked up detritus of the hippy-dippy hedonism of the 60s.produced. To be sure, these singers draw from a wholly different pool of pain than Mississippi Fred McDowells or Robert Johnson, but the end result is just as devastating to my biased soul. One party suffered from oppression, poverty and a variety of social ills and the other were just fucked up and a bunch of soft-boiled eggs, but the pain and emoting is equally resonant in both camps.

This is Tim Hardin is his second album and is mostly comprised of covers, but that doesn’t matter since tradition was the bread and butter of both parties. In light of his eventual overdose, his version of “Cocaine Bill” is especially poignant and heartbreaking in hindsight. His take on the tune is all too respectful as if he takes pride in the moments those late night mistakes where so much was ingested that self-destruction became romatnic. It is a paean to wrongdoing and the ignorance of consequence. Ignore the history of Tim Hardin and the subject material and it is sung as a love song to bad intentions.

Peel away the context and This is Tim Hardin is a showcase for a voice that was one of the most disctinctive and versatile of the 60s folk artists. Put the skin back on that onion and it is a devastation prelude to a genius who whittled away at his tool until there was nothing left but an empty legacy.

Loudon Wainwright III-Album II

September 21, 2008

Loudon Wainwright III

Album II (Atlantic 1970)

To my discredit, I never gave Loudon Wainwright the time of day due to encounters with his 90s albums. It was only when I started listening to his ex-wife Kate McGarrigle as well as his son Rufus that I decided to take a stab at his earliest efforts. Boy, did I feel like an ass when I heard some of the most sarcastic, humorous and downright moving folk of the early 70s. His lyrics display a wit and eloquence that stands out amidst the earnestness and goodwill of his contemporaries. There was venom in his words, but he was never above a roll in depression and regret.

Obviously, this is his second album and it is my favorite because it is the best example of his caustic wit and smarmy worldview. There isn’t much optimism to be found here. This is cynical music, but the moments of sunlight are truly moving because they are so reluctant and conflicted.

The highlight is “Motel Blues” because it is a critique of the emptiness of groupies and a musician’s life on the road. On the other hand, there is a romanticism of the hedonistic void where all women are notches on bedposts. What makes it rise above base sentiments is the tender delivery and description of a lonely hotel room and the way he makes this seduction sound so tragic. Both parties are so lost and devoid of emotion, but his offers of breakfast and insistence that she is perceived as his wife instead of a one night stand transform it into something despicable and sweet. It is a desperate plea for some sort of familial relationship when it the reality is that is a cheap encounter.

The image of the absent lover or husband presents itself again in “Cook That Dinner, Dora” where he bows before his partner’s domestic abilities and gives praise to the reassurances to be found in the traditions of a family dinner. Again, there is a weird misogyny afoot as he will only love her if she can make dinner happen like it exists in his mind. On the other hand, he presents the action of cooking dinner as an act of creativity that makes him love her even more. As someone who constantly cooks and clips recipes like a hairier Betty Crocker, it is endearing to me, but somewhat unsettling in its reliance on domesticity for reassurance.

“Be Careful, There’s a baby In the House” refers to the arrival of his son Rufus. Again, there is a fork in the road where one side of Loudon pays tribute to the joys of fatherhood while the other side explains fatherhood as “an IOU where you cannot expect a good deal” and that a father must always be on close watch about his very thoughts. Even the way he sings the chorus is sort of sarcastic as if all coochie-coos and babytalk makes his very skin crawl. It seems as if he is unhappy with the intrusion of a child and wishes for the freedoms expressed in “Motel Blues.” The rub is that the lifestyle pursued in “Motel Blues” leaves him depressed and lost.

However, this is why I love this album so much. He is painfully honest about his uncertainty about responsibility, family and the validity of love while expressing a desire for all three. He is an utter mess, but one who expresses his inner demons and joys in such a manner that makes him an innately likeable character despite his darkest thoughts and actions.

Si Kahn-New Wood

August 5, 2008

Si Kahn

New Wood (1974) (Philo Records)

Si Kahn was heavily involved in the civil rights movement and founded Grassroots Leadership which advocates prison reform. He even wrote a book dedicated to the dangers of privatization upon democracy. His activist roots are readily apparent on New Wood, his debut album. His singing is so disarming and earnest and it is hard to believe that his weathered vocals aren’t the work of a much older soul. Si Kahn’s music paints a picture of blue collar labor, rural Americana and those forgotten by the government. New Wood is tribute to the working man and woman and a way of life that is slowly decaying.

On the surface, New Wood is a humble country-folk album, but his lyrics are so heartbreaking in how they detail the hopelessness and angst of the characters who populate his songs. I especially love “Blue Ribbon for the Boys at the Bar” and how it captures the camaraderie to be found at the local watering hole while addressing the sad nature of all the patrons on the stools. This album is the epitome of bittersweet because he romanticizes rural life, but never fails to describe the tragic underbelly of each subject’s existence. On the surface, “Better Half of You” is a tender tune about compatibility. but there is also an undercurrent that this guy has fucked up so many times and is somewhat deluded in his optimism. This double life inherent in each song is what draws me to each of Si Kahn’s narratives of folks dealing withe inevitable ups and downs in their lives.


Moyshe McStiff and the Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart (1972)

There is much love within my heart for the Incredible String Band and their meandering hippie opuses about minotaurs and good ol’ cousin caterpillar. I remember the first time my punk ass saw the cover of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and snickering at the commune of foppish souls in technicolor coats and beaded necklaces, but once my viewpoint was forever altered once I actually heard it years later. My narrow mindedness isn’t much of a surprise since I once thought oversized t-shirts, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and malt liquor were enjoyable, so I wasn’t exactly ahead of the curve.

Clive Palmer was an integral part of the first Incredible String Band record which was a more straighforward affair that sort of reminds me of an Appalachian via English skiffle-folk version of the Holy Modal Rounders’ first two lps. Yeah, it isn’t an entirely accurate description, but it’ll do for now. Clive left the band before they expanded and explored more abstract, experimental territory. In the meantime, he joined the Famous Jug Band and recorded a solo effort entitled Banjoland, but these outlets were lesser lights. At the urging of Ralph McTell, he formed COB. or Clive’s Original Band, and recorded two of the best English folk/psych albums of all-time. First came 1970s Spirit of Love, then came their grand finale Moyshe McStiff.

Supposedly a song cycle about Crusades, Moyshe McStiff’s title and cover image evoke a mystical quality that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Incredible String Band cover. In fact, the music is eerily reminiscent of their 60s recordings as the band’s invention of a dulcimer/sitar hybrid, the dulcitar, echoes the woozy, mystical vibes of ISB’s most stoned moments. Biblical themes abound as COB references Judah, Solomon, Martha and Mary as the band delves into spiritual quests and the meaning of love. It is such an earnest, sincere album that would seem ridiculous if it wasn’t so gorgeous.

The centerpiece of the album is “Let It Be You” which may be one of the most tender, but simple love songs I’ve heard. It is a celebration of the power of song to immortalize true love as well as a tender sentiment. It is a testament to power of words as well as the ephemeral quality of our affections. It is full of dedication and uncertainty just like those first exhilarating months of a new relationship.

To put it it down right, to make it true

if my songs were people, this could be you

but if i lose it, or just confuse it

lets make it summer, lets make it you

and when i’m longing let it be you

and when im giving let it be you

i woke this morning and without warning

someone was near me and it was you

Jeffrey Cain

Whispering Thunder (Raccoon 1972)

Not much is known about Jeffrey Cain other than the fact that he released two albums, For You and Whispering Thunder, for Jesse Colin Young’s Warner Bros. imprint Raccoon records. the Raccoon label was responsible for some of the greatest sides of hippie soul and country folk released in the 70s. It boasted a roster of Jesse Colin Young, Michael Hurley and the Youngbloods. (Note: if anyone has any music by other Raccoon artists Banana and the Bunch, Joe Bauer, Kenny Gill or High Country, email me at

This is his second album and it should appeal to fans of Loudon Wainwright’s early work since both artists use country and folk as a canvas for their own bitter, biting observations. Bob Dylan and the Youngbloods are also strong influences although he is more enamoured of southern-fried rock and roll licks on many of the tracks. He is at his best on the opener “Soul Train” which is blue eyed soul by way of Nashville. Love this track and it stands as one of the best twangy tracks of the early 70s. “Pack Up Your Sorrows” is a heartbreakingly simple tune that offers a sentiment straight out of a Hallmark card. However, his request that a lover pack up her sorrows and share her burden with him just gets me all choked up. On a slightly negative note, I get the sense that his odes to moonshine and farming are somewhat tongue in cheek, but that is just my own paranoia. Like down home country by way of Woodstock? Whispering Thunder is right up your alley.

Tim Buckley

Dream Letter

Live in London 1968

Disc One:

Disc Two:

Many critics and fans have hailed Tim Buckley as one of the distinctive voices of the 60s/early 70s. That is true, but I always felt that his actual albums never delivered on the endless promise of that voice. There are moments of brilliance on his first six albums. From the earnest folk troubadour to the whacked catharsis of Starsailor, he hit plateaus matched by few others of the era. However, none of the albums qualified as classics, just classic moments. I always found myself grabbing for Fred Neil, Bill Fay and even Donovan records before Buckley’s because they were just brilliant through and through.

A musical awakening arrived when a friend bought me Dream Letter Live in London for a birthday present. It was sort of an awkward time in my life as I found my way in a new city and emotions were unsteady. One I heard his version of “Dolphins”, Fred Neil went out of my playlist for awhile since Buckley’s version blew it up into some fantastical epic even more beautiful and melancholy than his version. Even songs I disliked in their recorded versions became favorites once I heard them performed in a live setting. This set finds hime improving on the recorded versions as he stretches out the structure of each track without delving too far into the caterwauling that sometimes turned me off.

The first cd of this double whammy is pretty stellar, but the second disc really finds him mining some dark emotional spaces as he seems intent on exorcising some personal demons onstage. There is a track where “Carnival Song” segues into “Hi Lily, Hi Lo” It begins with a simple musing about the lack of carnivals in NYC and how it doesn’t mean much, but then starts singing about a lady named Lily who should come and join in with the festivities. It is a romantic request for his lady to get into the spirit and embrace the moment and dance with him. Yes, that sounds mundane, but I would dance with this fellow at monster truck showdown after this life-affirming track. It is a plea for happiness and triumph over depression that is delivered in such a tender fashion that it sums up the essence of love.

Mia Doi Todd

Come Out of Your Mine

It is such a shame that this is the last album of hers that I can recommend because her first two albums are some of the most literate, melancholy folk/indie-pop albums of the past decade. She still possesses that otherworldly voice, but attempts at commerciality have eroded her vision and voice. However, her followup to The ewe and Eye continues the grand steps of the debut. It is a shame this was released in the late 90s because woodland youngsters of all shapes and sizes would swoon for the sounds found herein. If you have love in your heart for the Meg Bairds, Joanna Newsomes, and Fern Knights of the world, then you should nuzzle up this warm, homespun recording.

Songs of murdered lovers, battleships parked in the Charles River, unrequited affections and broken bones litter her lyrics. At times, her fantastical lyrics remind me of the Handsome Family and to a lesser extent, the Harry Smith Folk Anthology. Anyway you slice this loaf, it is an inviting album that creates a soothing cocoon for all who listen.