Although I have had a healthy interest in music since I first discovered the records of the Beatles when I was about ten years of age, my obsessiveness developed into encyclopedic around the time I started university; a time which happened to coincide with my purchasing of the weekly music mags (partly as a way of avoiding my studies?) coupled with listening avidly to John Peel’s nightly radio show.
Of course, despite my voracious thirst for musical knowledge, there were many genres of music for which my research came up short, but when it comes to white American men strumming or plucking or plonking acoustic instruments, until recently I have felt as though, even though I may not have heard the music itself, I would know of the key players, the movers and the shakers…that new names would not crop up or, if they did, it would be because they weren’t particularly good! Robbie Basho’s Visions Of The Country has been a revelation and makes me wonder how many other gems are out there, flying under the radar.
Until about two months ago I hadn’t heard of Robbie Basho. Flicking through the ILX forum one day, lost for inspiration, I noticed his name as a thread title and had the thought, ‘why not actually click on the thread’ rather than do what I would normally do and dismiss it as someone not worth bothering with…simply because I had never heard of him!
There was the usual level of internet devotion on the thread, but as respondents are a self-selecting group, that’s hardly surprising…I could click on a Whitney Houston thread and find a similar level of enthusiastic devotion but she would still sound like a bunch of cats being tortured no matter how many times someone tells you she is the greatest female singer of all time! However, there was also a link to a youtube clip of Blue Crystal Fire and this had me spellbound from the off. A simple strummed acoustic guitar which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Palace Brother’s wonderful debut ‘There is No-One what Will Take Care Of You’, or Smog’s masterpiece ‘A River Ain’t Too Much To Love’ and that voice, kind of like Bill Callahan doing his best Anohni impression. The song was ponderous/funereal in terms of pace, repetitive, overtly earnest…and, for me, absolutely captivating. Usually a youtube clip, even of a song I like, will keep me interested for a minute, maybe two, before I see a suggested link and click on that. Well Blue Crystal Fire got about four full plays…and then I bought the album, avoiding playing anything else from it lest it diminished the impact of the first run through when the record arrived.
It turns out that Blue Crystal Fire is a bit of an anomaly, at least as far as Visions Of The Country is concerned – most of the other songs on the album involve lengthy passages of semi-improvised(?) finger picking interspersed with relatively brief blasts of Basho’s deep baritone. On many of the tracks there is no discernible repetition, no conventional song structure, it should be a formless mess, almost impossible to access and intimidating to listen to. But…it’s not. At least as far as I’m concerned!
As Nick suggested on the night, possibly that’s down to the images and atmospheres the songs evoke (the image on the album sleeve is almost exactly the image Basho’s music conjures up). The record transports the listener – perhaps to another (better?) place, almost certainly to a simpler time, perhaps a time we all yearn for where we are closer to our natural environment; where we would be more likely to take notice of the beauty of a flower or a waterfall or a deer; where there is time and space and, ironically, silence. Whilst this may sound like hippy dippy shit, Visions Of The Country avoids all those trappings by mining the source and in the process it sounds like it has always been there, just like the mountains, lakes and streams it so exquisitely evokes.
Rob listened: Blimey.
One of the beautiful things about record club, some of the most memorable, tangible moments, come when some record or other, and it’s almost impossible to predict which ones, just end up captivating us. We’re extremely capable of talking over almost anything, quiet or loud, long or short, insistent or passive, but every so often an album just captivates us. So it was with ‘Visions of the Country’. It could have passed us by. We could have been non-plussed and untouched, as we seemed to be by Tim Hecker in the previous round, as Robbie Basho also tinkled out a load of abstract, unstructured sound. But we were completely drawn in.
And yes, I was reminded of some of Will Oldham’s instrumental outings, and also some of the Derek Bailey improvised guitar stuff I’ve heard. It also reminded me of some of the abstract twinklings I like to listen to, and I also got Tom’s suggestion that it captured the same desert spirit as some of the good Captain Beefheart’s music.
But it was also wonderfully idiosyncratic and helplessly absorbing. I’ve got a feeling I had heard of Robbie Basho before, only in that I can faintly imagine someone American saying his name in an interview. Now you can mark me down as someone actively seeking out his records. Thanks Tom, an absolute winner.
Steve listened: Blimey indeed
This was the album I talked, effused and waxed lyrical about when I got to talk about the night’s proceedings with my wife. I was most struck by the level of musicianship, and how he managed to take a 12 string guitar and play it like a sitar. This approach completely contrasts other western musicians who have embedded eastern music into a western style, almost as an add on. Here the subject and sounds seemed to blend seemlessly. Yes, thanks Tom, I will seek too.