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The Well of Memory
Perhaps Transparent / Amish
araphrase of an old joke: They say the problem with nostalgia is that it’s not as good as it used to be.
Nostalgia is a volatile chemical to work with in music. Idealized, regressive myths of a better, more magical time and place are a poor platform for making art. Folk revivalism has produced some sublime music, but it is also responsible for an old time-y heritage industry whose response to the problems of the present are little more than a reactionary idealization, a flat rejection, a great silence in the world’s musical conversation. Sometimes all that extra-musical noise makes it hard to hear the sounds.
So before I further skewer folk revivalism and nostalgia let me admit the faltering of my critique from the beginning: The Well of Memory is a bold folk-revivalist meditation on nostalgia and it is beautiful—a record that uses its baggage to its advantage and is better for it.
Let me call out the extra-musical noise. Nick Tosches, curmudgeonly commentator on musical authenticity (the folkies’ holy grail) wrote “The quest for authenticity in American popular culture is not only misguided, it’s irrelevant and at worst a folly that when mindlessly pursued becomes the demeaning coon show of the celebration of the primitive …[it comes from] young, ‘liberal,’ white America, seeking escape from vacuousness through the…‘raw, hard truth’ of the blues”, resulting in a degrading sort of minstrelsy of the living music itself.
I happen to agree.
I love a lot of what’s called “folk”. I’m a sucker for finger-style acoustic guitars and occasionally (embarrassingly) susceptible to the suggestion that acoustic instruments possess a more direct connection to the soul than their rock and roll brethren (though aren’t they all, at the end of the day, “acoustic”?). But there is that certain severe folk music culture that degrades the music itself by supporting a caricature industry informed by a regressive Luddite response to its anxieties about the present. Rather than present engagement, rather than telling us stories about ourselves as we are and continue to be, the Revivalist impulse is to protect behind glass a fidelity to an arbitrary monument, to pine for a lost gilded age. There’s a kind of conservative subtext that runs beneath this.
In fact, the folkies’ fetishization of past forms ends up being more ethno-musicological librarianship than anything else. And that’s why it’s a good thing that Freak Folk is more freak than folk.
Pat Gubler, the man behind P.G. Six, is one of the architects of this scene. As a founding members of Tower Recordings and of what has become the northeast’s “free folk” scene (which Wire has awkwardly christened “the New, Weird America”), documented recently on labels like Siltbreeze, Spirit of Orr, and Amish, early PG Six and Tower Recordings records show Gubler as a man as influenced by the avant-rock of Pussy Galore and the noise-minimalism of Glenn Branca as the hazy psych-folk of Incredible String Band, Amon Duul, and Pentangle. So coming from the concentrated experimentalism of his earlier recordings, The Well of Memory reads as a downright bold move ‘backwards’ from a musician comfortable and confident enough to (mostly) play it straight.
Gubler acknowledges the influence of the British folk-revivalism of John Rembourne, Bert Jansch, and Anne Briggs, and those precedents are clear and palpable here. It manifests itself in his guitar technique, in his choice of instrumentation, in the carefully measured delivery of his vocals (compared to the forced, bluenote yawps-n-growls of folk Americana), but the conventions of that genre never seem to outright govern his musical choices (as is evident in the prickly, phased-out tape loops throughout “Crooked Way,” the envelope-filter electronics solos on “Considering the Lateness of the Hour,” and the various processed tape samples the he uses to artful but not ambient effect). The title track (parts I and II) are microtonal Ukelin and Organ drone pieces that would be in danger of being New Age muzak if they weren’t so discordant, aurally complex, and lacking in the superficial preciousness of any given Windham Hill record. On the surface, the remainder of the record largely sidesteps the frenzied avant-psychedelia of its free folk peers (like Matt Valentine, Pelt, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Charlambides) in favor of controlled, naked acoustic songs, accompanied by guitar, tenor banjo, harps and recorders. But while the songs are straight (certainly no crime) they still split in the joins and hinge to reveal the same spirit of free timbral exploration (as when “Come In” recedes in the face of live recordings of Gubler’s 100 harmonica drone ensemble) that has always been a hallmark of Gubler’s work.
If nostalgia articulates anxieties about the present, PG Six seems to engage the present through nostalgia’s lens. And vice versa. This is a confident, deliberate, technically refined acoustic record that is only subtly finished with a wariness of nostalgia—but only insomuch as Gubler acknowledges the trappings and then unapologetically plays within a tradition he admires and cares for. Here there is a difference between cultural memory and nostalgia. He is not afraid to ornament the record with renditions of traditional songs (“The Winter Is Past”) or with melodic figures lifted from traditionals. This is neither mere revivalism nor critical engagement with the genre. The Well of Memory sidesteps both concerns to create a confident, beautiful, well-rendered ode to the jumbled contradictions, conventions, and cultural memories that are the substance of any genre-based music (and must also be part of Gubler). More than on his previous outings, The Well of Memory rides this line precariously. He admires the music in a weary, human way, without buying into its starry-eyed fairytale. Like Linda Perhacs’ brilliant “Parallelograms,” it avoids the pitfalls of either idealized pastiche or deliberate exercises in deconstruction and finds something new, articulate and self-reliant in the tension between the two.
Or it may be that I’m so beguiled and taken in by the music that I just can’t be overly critical. Either way, that’s something.
Reviewed by: William S. Fields
Reviewed on: 2005-01-20
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