Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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John Fahey

  • Of Rivers and Religion [Reprise, 1972] A
  • After the Ball [Reprise, 1973] A-
  • Return of the Repressed: The John Fahey Anthology [Rhino, 1994] A-
  • City of Refuge [Tim/Kerr, 1997] C+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Of Rivers and Religion [Reprise, 1972]
Fahey is immersed in country blues, from which he drives his own unique guitar music--eerie, funny, stately, and incredibly calm. The best tranquilizing music I know, because instead of palming off a fantasy of sodden deliverance it seems to speak of real reserves of self-control inside the American psyche. Not for everyone, but I think this is his best. A

After the Ball [Reprise, 1973]
I'm a rock and roll fan, too, and I'd rather listen to this collection of standards and acoustic blues and rag inventions than any rock record this side of the Allmans and the New York Dolls. Conditionally guaranteed. A-

Return of the Repressed: The John Fahey Anthology [Rhino, 1994]
The catch-phrase I like best for his deliberate acoustic style gets its '50s-collegiate pretensions and folk/not-folk ambivalence: "existentialist guitar." A record collector who bases many songs on treasured blues and string-band obscurities, he also cops from Saint-Saens, rock 'n' roll, Christian hymns, Hindu hymns, and what-have-you to construct a late-night music untouched by lyrics or speed: spacy and contemplative, yet with an implacable common touch. True enough, Fahey's pioneering DIY label, named after Takoma Park, the D.C. suburb he called home, was where George Winston got his start. But after two decades of asking myself why he's any better than Leo Kottke I've decided it's a spiritual thing--he's maintained a direct line to his inner amateur. For two whole CDs, definitely not boring. Just close enough to make you question the category. A-

City of Refuge [Tim/Kerr, 1997]
"My category is alternative, period," avers the last intelligent person to make such a claim in this millennium. He doesn't want to be folk or New Age, and who can blame him? But if he were, some rich dunderhead might insist that he treat blues and pop rarities to his dolorously deliberate touch, like on those old Reprise albums Byron Coley sneers at. Instead he's encouraged to stagger toward an obscure destination mere mortals would noodle around, dumbfounding bystanders with the scraps of sound that flake off his beard as he goes. Once in a while tunes poke through the refuse, notably that of "Chelsey Silver, PleaseCall Home." These occasion proud huzzahs from young fools who can only forgive themselves such emoluments after a good cleansing scourge of spare solo indirection. Their self-disgust is our loss and Fahey's ticket to wankdom. Even the meandering Cul de Sac get more out of him. C+

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1970s]: Fahey is immersed in country blues, from which he derives his own unique guitar music--eerie, funny, stately, and incredibly calm. The best tranquilizing music I know, because instead of palming off a fantasy of sodden deliverance it seems to speak of real reserves of self-control inside the American psyche. That said, I'll add that tranquilizing music has never been a priority of mine. The only one of the albums on his own Takoma label I listen to is the first, The Legend of Blind Joe Death. My real favorites are Of Rivers and Religion and After the Ball--both orchestrated, both long out of print on Reprise. Avoid the Vanguard stuff, which tends to wander--and boy, can we wander.