Tribute albums are an odd lot. The mere idea of judging one worthy of such treatment is a difficult one, save for those that are near legendary. Between the I am Sam soundtrack and the This Bird Has Flown “Rubber Soul” homage, you already have a pretty decent Beatles covers collection. Tributes to the Jam, Depeche Mode, the Pixies and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska have been some standout albums over the last few years. Then there are the artists who choose to pay tribute to only one musician, such as Colin Meloy with Morrissey, Sun Kil Moon with Modest Mouse and Petra Haden with The Who Sell Out. But for the most part, quite a lot of tribute albums are of mediocre talents covering very popular artists. When the tables are reversed, and you find some of the indie heavyweights contributing to an album devoted to an obscure talent, you just know you’re in for something special.
One need not be familiar with John Fahey to appreciate this tribute album. Indeed, most listeners out there probably aren’t familiar with him. Fahey is a Maryland born guitar player who plumb near invented a finger picking style that took off in folk circles in the 60’s and has reverberated ever onward in the hallowed halls of folk, country and rock music. Combine that with the current revitalization of folk music and it’s no wonder that such esteemed artists jumped on board this particular project, timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Fahey’s signing to Vanguard Records and the 5th anniversary of his death (after a sextuple bypass surgery). Put together and produced by California’s own acoustic guitar hero M. Ward, I Am the Resurrection is the only album on which you’ll find Fruit Bats, Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, Calexico, Grandaddy and M. Ward himself on the same disc.
Each artist provides his or her own style to befit the magnificent work of Fahey, but at the same time, each has a similarity that links it to the whole. While not everyone on the album finger picks in Fahey’s signature style, that does not seem to matter. For instance, Howe Gelb, of Giant Sand, plunks the piano in a style mirroring that of the `pick’ quite nicely. Sufjan Stevens proves once again that no matter whether it’s a cover, a holiday carol or an original, anything he touches becomes instant orchestrated magic as he takes on “Transfiguration & Communion at Magruder Park,” the last track from Fahey’s album The Yellow Princess which is getting the re-release treatment this month. M. Ward has proven that he can turn anything from classical music to the Beach Boys into acoustic guitar beauty and the same is true with his take on “Bean Vine Blues #2.” Two of the standouts on the CD are Calexico’s version of “Dance of Death” from Fahey’s second album, and Lee Ranaldo (of Sonic Youth) featuring the Lazy 8 Chorale doing “The Singing Bridge of Memphis (Brooklyn Bridge Version: The Coelacanth),” also from The Yellow Princess. Ranaldo’s piece features some added material about a prehistoric fish, the Coelacanth, about which Ranaldo and Fahey had conversations.
Besides Ranaldo having personal stories of Fahey, so too do does Cul de Sac, having collaborated with him on their 1996 album, China Gate. The ones that haven’t met Fahey share their love with stories of hearing his music for the first time, like Kevin Barker’s tale of finding vinyl copies of his early albums at a New York record store and returning periodically ever since to see if, like a slot machine, the bin pays off yet again. To reiterate, one need not be familiar with the music of John Fahey, as storied and extensive a catalog as he has, but once you hear his music as played by these artists, you’ll want to hear more of it.