John Fahey / Various Artists
The Yellow Princess / I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey
A- / C-
ribute albums, like funerals, aren’t for the deceased—they’re for the living. The desire to hear the best tracks of your favorite artists mauled by lesser musicians is a strangely universal and undeniably masochistic trait. Great tribute albums are at least 30 times rarer than great artists, but we continue to tune in, hopeful that modern music’s finest can illuminate our favorite artists in a way that our favorite artists never could.
These albums must be for the fans, as it seems dubious to suggest that Devendra Banhart simply had to record three minutes “Sligo River” to cope with the loss of steel-string virtuoso John Fahey, who died five years ago this February. Fahey is saluted by Banhart and 12 others on I Am the Resurrection, which is being released on Vanguard alongside a reissue of 1969’s The Yellow Princess, long-considered among the upper echelon of Fahey’s myriad solo works.
Though much has been made of Fahey’s versatility—he was an accomplished author and painter and has gotten a ton of mileage out of his scattered experimental work—he will ultimately be remembered for applying the precision and dexterity of classical guitar to steel-stringed folk and blues classics. Given the limited format, and Fahey’s near-comical calculations—nicknaming himself “Blind Joe Death,” placing his early records in used bins with hopes that collectors would mistake him for a lost delta mastermind—Fahey kept the quality of his work consistently high.
The Yellow Princess is exemplary of Fahey’s knack for exploiting his limited premise. The Yellow Princess is a hallmark not because it revolutionized Fahey’s sound, displayed an improved technique, or broke him to a wider audience. Rather, it was the combination of a particularly deft melodic touch—displayed on the rambunctious “Lion”—and a growing tendency to expand his sonic palette—on the legendary sound collage “The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tenneesee”—that marks The Yellow Princess as one of Fahey’s most consistent, and ultimately enlightening works. The three previously unreleased tracks Vanguard tracks adds are mostly noteworthy for “Steel Guitar Medley,” in which Fahey slows his manic picking to a haunting, metallic ring. The length and variety of the extras solidify The Yellow Princess as a fine starting point for any Fahey virgin.
By contrast, the tribute disc is only for Fahey diehards—even fanatics of the disc’s many underground luminaries won’t draw much from this tribute without an innate interest in Fahey’s work. Not surprisingly, no one approaches Fahey’s technique. As such, it’s the fiddlers and diggers that define the peaks of Resurrection. M. Ward’s electric boogaloo take on “Bean Vine Blues #2” will leave listeners salivating at the lost possibility of Fahey fucking with electricity. Howe Gelb makes a Tinker Toy ragtime out of “My Grandfather Clock,” and Sufjan Stevens mines the hymn from which Fahey stole “Commemorative Transfiguration & Communion at Magruder Park” for a hammy, but affecting, vocal take. Grandaddy’s Jason Q. Lytle is the album’s dark horse, accenting a simple acoustic figure with ghostly background noise and an ornery electric bleat.
Too many, however, hold back. The order of the day seems to be acoustic structures with slight flourishes: keyboards, slight percussion, banjo. Currtick Co. and Pelt arouse little emotion simply pasting in extra textures. Banhart and Fruit Bats are frustratingly reserved, and Ranaldo’s field recording-tribute to “The Singing Bridge” is just a bit too predictable, even amidst his delightfully discordant strums.
Fahey’s reverence for his source material was what ultimately drove the passion and precision of his playing. Having a likewise passionate reverence for Fahey, it turns out, isn’t as inspiring. The absence of Fahey’s technique requires, at the very least, a creative edge that too much of I Am the Resurrection lacks. Resurrection is a warming tribute, but it pales in comparison to Fahey’s best works, something The Yellow Princess makes all too apparent. But Resurrection wasn’t made for Fahey, it was made to explore his impact on modern folk artists. And while the artists here will never get the mileage out of Fahey’s source material that Fahey did, they’re getting plenty out of Fahey himself, in their own works, if not on Resurrection.