Recovery mission

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Throughout its history Drag City Records has extended its reach beyond contemporary artists to reissue music from some of the most overlooked iconoclasts of the 60s, 70s and, 80s (Gary Higgins, Big Flame, Half Japanese), as well as put out new material by veterans still doing bold work (Mayo Thompson’s Red Krayola, Scott Walker). Recently the label has released albums by two more greats from the 70s. One's a cult hero, and the other's totally unknown.

Bill Fay was one of the most interesting and literate folk-rockers to emerge in England on the cusp of the 70s. He made two superb albums for the Decca subsidiary Deram—1970's Bill Fay and 1971's Time of the Last Persecution, both reissued last year by Eclectic Discs. He was backed by some of the country’s most progressive jazz musicians of the time, players who were conversant in myriad styles and shared a sophisticated improvisational and harmonic language. Bill Fay featured nearly 30 musicians, organized by arranger Mike Gibbs; among them were saxophonist John Surman, Soft Machine drummer John Marshall, and guitarist Ray Russell—a titanic talent who bridged the gap between free jazz and psychedelic rock like no one else. (A new Russell album, Goodbye Svengali, was released on Cuneiform earlier this year). The follow-up was much darker and stripped-down, with Russell’s searing leads emerging as a key lyric feature.

The record-buying public didn’t respond to the records, and Fay stopped recording under his name and took on day jobs. But in the mid-70s he did hook up with an aggressive jazz-rock trio called the Acme Quartet, made up of younger musicians who were fans of the Russell-era style, but capable of adapting to Fay's more relaxed vocal style. They recorded an album’s worth of material between 1978-1982, but it remained unreleased until Jnana--the label affiliated with Current 93’s David Tibet—put it out in late 2004 as Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow. It’s a gorgeous collection that sets Fay slightly wry but melodic singing amid elegant piano figures, stately rhythms, and the occasional guitar explosion, courtesy Gary Smith. While Fay is often compared with Nick Drake and Bob Dylan, his idiosyncratic, gentle singing doesn't really owe a debt to anyone; there are things about the album that remind me of the solo work by fellow Brit Robert Wyatt, but their voices sound nothing alike.

Drag City released Tomorrow Tomorrow and Tomorrow on vinyl in late July, and it's shown similar good taste in the case of fingerstyle guitarist Mark Fosson. A few years back, while asking her mother is she had any John Fahey records, singer Tiffany Anders (daughter of filmmaker Allison Anders) discovered that her cousin had once played with the legendary guitarist. In her charming liner notes to The Lost Takoma Sessions she explains that Fosson had sent an unsolicited demo to Fahey, who was thrilled with the music--a photo of the tape package features Fahey’s scrawled note reading, “best demo tape I’ve heard since Kottke”--and asked the Kentucky native come to LA and play some gigs with him. He left for LA in January of 1977 and recorded an album for Fahey’s Takoma imprint the following month. Unfortunately, by then the label was in deep financial trouble, and before Fosson’s record was ever released Fahey was forced to sell Takoma to Chrysalis Records. Fahey returned the master recordings to Fosson, who tried in vain to find another label to release the music. It was soon relegated to his garage until Anders’s curiosity led to him digging it out, which eventually led to Drag City getting hold of it and releasing it late last month.

Early Leo Kottke is certainly a good point of reference for Fosson’s playing, a technically dazzling mix of gorgeous melody and deft counterpoint. Compared with the complex, blues-derived constructions of Fahey, which drew upon elaborate structures of Indian classical music, Fosson sounds straight-ahead, but his original tunes are filled with shape-shifting episodes sewn together with invisible threads—the music rolls forward with the fluid motion of the finest bluegrass picker, but its studded with fanciful harmonic thickets, counter-melodies, and pinpoint rhythmic clarity.

It’s actually not Fosson's first album. After the Takoma deal went sour he remained in LA and started pitching songs to MCA Records. He didn't have much luck, but he did get involved with the city’s underground country and singer-songwriter scenes, and even had some tunes included on A Town South Of Bakersfield Vol 2, a 1988 collection put together by Dwight Yoakam producer and guitarist Pete Anderson that also included tunes by Jim Lauderdale and Lucinda Williams. But it wasn’t until last year that Fosson finally released a collection of own music, Jesus on a Greyhound. It's a solid collection of rootsy country-rock, but the music on The Lost Takoma Sessions is something really special.

If that’s not enough, in October Drag City is releasing The Black Swan, a terrific new album by Bert Jansch, a long-time guitarist in the excellent 70s folk-rock band the Pentangle. The new record was coproduced by Jansch and Noah Georgeson, who worked on Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender, and features some guest spots from Beth Orton, David Roback, and king of the cameo whores Devendra Banhart.

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