Wild Mercury Sound

Imaginational Anthems Volume Three

John Mulvey

Nice thing turned up in the post the other day from one of my favourite labels at the moment, Tompkins Square. The New York label tends to specialise in fingerpicking guitarists who are very much in the tradition of the Takoma school, which they categorise, neatly enough, as “American Primitive Guitar”.

“Imaginational Anthems Volume Three” is their latest comp of this stuff, and they continue to amaze me with a facility of finding both old and new guitarists in the tradition to celebrate. Out of the 11 players here, I’m only familiar with four of them – Greg Davis, Steffan Basho-Jungans, Mark Fosson and Shawn David McMillen.

I must admit, too, that I don’t have the technical expertise to meticulously delineate between these players, as they orbit around American roots tradition and psych-raga expansiveness in generally similar – but individually quite distinctive – ways to John Fahey, Robbie Basho and so on; Tompkins Square’s reissue of “Venus In Cancer” by Basho, incidentally, is one of the records I’ve played most at home in the past year or so.

There’s a vague echo of Basho’s medieval courtliness in the opening “Zocalo” by one Richard Crandell – a subterranean hero thanks to sundry private press recordings, apparently – though the track carries a faint hint of John Renbourn to my imprecise ears, too. Steffan Basho-Jungans, of course, went so far as to change his name to incorporate that of his hero, and his “Blue Mountain Raga II” here is a vast – 14 minute – piece of ebbing acoustic ripple that has that shiny intensity, that zen negotiation between mellowness and incredible concentration, that I love about James Blackshaw (another Tompkins Square alumnus who I’ve written about at length round here before).

There’s actually a slight divide on this album between the more cosmic players (notably Greg Davis, whose “Here Toucheth Blues” has a treated, warped air that makes it seem in places like an acoustic companion to the music of Growing, maybe) and more traditional players like Nathan Salsburg, George Stavis (a ferociously elaborate banjo player and Vanguard veteran) and the great Mark Fosson (the forgotten man of Takoma, whose ’77 album finally emerged a year or two back on Drag City).

But I struggle to recall any recent comps that glide together as seamlessly as these Tompkins Square projects, and “Volume Three” is no exception. Contemplative, intricate, a simple but ornate school of folk that hangs effortlessly between the ancient and the avant-garde – I could listen to this stuff all day. And to be honest, especially at the weekend and in the car (full of knackered James Blackshaw CDRs, chiefly), I often do.


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