Early days with this Bill Fay CD as yet, and I can’t help thinking that two or three listens is in no way enough to get an angle on, what, 43 songs spread across two CDs. “Still Some Light” consists of a bunch of full band demos from 1970-71, plus a home album (“Still Some Light” itself) recorded last year.
Time moves slowly in these parts: Fay’s first single came out in 1967, eventually followed by two remarkable albums, “Bill Fay” and “Time Of The Last Persecution”, in 1970 and ’71. A collection of songs from the late ‘70s, “Tomorrow, Tomorrow & Tomorrow”, surfaced in 2005, and that’s more or less it. Fay was last spotted onstage with Wilco, helping out on a cover of his own “Be Not So Fearful” in London in 2007. For a supposed rock recluse, however, he can be pretty forthcoming, not least in ringing up every now and again for a chat and to offer heartfelt thanks for some passing mention.
That humility is writ large on “Still Some Light”, with a CD booklet that includes a lengthy piece by Fay that starts as a handwritten autobiography and ends up as an epic thankyou note, embracing everyone from his family down to a bunch of admiring music critics. The modesty is undoubtedly genuine, but a tad unnecessary: it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call Bill Fay one of the most undervalued British singer-songwriters of the past 40-odd years – as many of those lucky enough to have heard his music will probably testify.
All that said, for an artist that often seems self-contained, hermetic even, in the way he appears in his music, much of Fay’s work has been illuminated by a vivid series of collaboration, notably with two mighty guitarists, Ray Russell and Gary Smith. The first CD here is subtitled “Piano, Guitar, Bass & Drums 1970-71”, and the demos include a good few songs that turned up on Fay’s first two albums – great songs, like “Time Of The Last Persecution”, “Tell It Like It Is” and “Pictures Of Adolf Again”, as well as the amazing “Love Is The Tune”, which fetched up on “Tomorrow, Tomorrow & Tomorrow”.
What’s often most striking on these sessions, though, isn’t so much the fine songs, but the playing – chiefly Ray Russell’s rearing, snarling guitar, even more untethered than on “Time Of The Last Persecution”, which gives even the most introverted pastorals an unlikely visceral heft. On Fay’s debut album, “The Sun Is Bored” is an orchestral melodrama, but in this version, it’s reconfigured in a gnarled, raw way which might be even more arresting.
That kind of dynamic is generally missing from the wealth of new songs that constitute CD2 of the “Still Some Light” package. Recorded at home on an electronic keyboard, it’s a purposefully small-scale affair; a collection of very short, often prayer-like songs that continues Fay’s preoccupations with faith, the barbarism and futility of war and so on, but which seem infused with a greater peacefulness. There’s a strong feeling here of beatific contemplation, of Fay being reconciled to the iniquities of existence and being able to see through the clouds more clearly – hence the title, “Still Some Light”.
Initially, I do miss the tensions and power of Fay’s previous bands. For a good while there was some discussion of a studio hook-up with Wilco: both Fay and Jeff Tweedy admitted as much to me, separately, with Fay seeing Nels Cline as very much a fitting heir to Russell and Smith at his side. These songs have a cumulative impact, a rolling prayer cycle of minuscule melodic shifts, with Fay’s cracked, hushed and humane voice still ripe with character over some occasionally bland musical settings, which at best recall a home-baked equivalent to the last two Leonard Cohen albums.
The opening “My Eyes Open”, where Fay essentially places a vocal track over an existing piece by Michael Cashmore of Current 93, gives a good indication of what could be done; a calm chamber setting which it’s hard to believe could’ve existed in isolation, so discreetly and effectively does it complement the vocal. But slowly, the individual qualities of these songs – “Here Beneath The Veil”, “City Of Dreams”, “Solace Flies In”, for a start – start to emerge. Hopefully, Fay will find a chance to do them full justice with an expanded lineup; it’s hard to imagine, given his past record, that they’ll lose any of their intimacy and potency in the process.