Ten years ago, Jim Becker sought out yoga and meditation teacher Lama Lobsang Palden, hoping to find physical and spiritual healing. But at the end of their first encounter, Palden told the local multi-instrumentalist that they should make an album together. Three years later, they began the protracted process that resulted in the new Drag City release Compassion. Becker, who’s played with Califone, Iron & Wine, and Lanzón, recorded Palden’s chants and percussion while accompanying him on acoustic stringed instruments. Once they’d accumulated several hours of tapes, Becker took them back to his home studio for a period of reassessment and metamorphosis. He eventually chose to excerpt Palden’s recitations, then build up those brief passages by adding layers of woodwinds, brass, and chanting.
The nine tracks on Compassion flow together in a continuous listening experience, but the album makes no attempt to evoke a conventional Buddhist ceremony—it’s more like a psychedelic spirit quest. “Compassion” opens with a minute of Palden’s voice and percussion, and then an electric bass line kicks the title track into higher gear, forging ahead while his chanting flies in and out of the mix. After this heady beginning, the next piece, “Tara,” plunges through recordings of crashing waves and deep into a vertiginous swirl of backward tape effects. Palden’s voice dispels this maelstrom on “Blessings,” only to fade into the background as it’s overtaken by rustic fiddle and slide guitar. On “Calling the Spirits (Emptiness),” Rob Mazurek’s cornet seems to reproach the song’s dark expanses before being absorbed into them. During the final track, “Purification,” the different elements finally dance in time with Palden’s chanting, then yield once more to the sounds of the sea. As the music fades, you may feel you’ve experienced not only the serenity of recovery but also the turbulence you have to ride out to find it. v