Pass the Distance
hat a sad state of affairs. Obviously, Rock is no longer the locus of Danger; even if a ‘band’ like Sunn O))) comes along and harnesses the whatness and isness of Iommi to such an extreme/extent that your ears and ass are bleeding right along with every deliberate stoke of the axe, the Rock press and their faithful confusedly refer to them as ‘art’, or ‘art-rock’, or ‘stoner-rock’, or ‘drone’, or ‘minimalism’. If you know any of these people—and I’m sure you do—you’ll know that folk is making a comeback; ‘dark’ folk is making a comeback; ‘psychedelia’ is making a comeback; and so is ‘cult’ rock, ‘apocalyptic’ folk and rock; ‘free’ and not-so free jazz, and others and so on and so forth. Curiously, and nearly soundlessly, the folk shamans and heady psychedelic denizens have usurped the status of the renegades of old; Incredible String Band records are going for as much as a commercial stove; and Nick Drake and Wizz Jones and Simon Finn are sedulously stranger, spookier, and scarier than a host of Mr. Mojo-Risins.
It’s no longer beer and LSD, but mead and peyote; there’s this inane quest for the masterpiece of yore; where’s that LP that defines an era? Where’s that singer-songwriter that channels the unrest? Where’s that guitarist unconscious, whose fingers are moved by an alien energy? A great majority of reissues not only purport to posit the answers to these ridiculous questions; they also promise a whiff from the dreary dustbin; odors this listener deems neither ‘timeless’ nor ‘extraordinary’. The thing is, is that our times have made these—unlikely—resurrections possible; music aficionados are eating this stuff up like its manna shat from the muse’s arse.
And so the voluminous folk and psychedelic reissues have been fattening up the folds at online feeding troughs Fusetron, Father Yod/Ecstatic Yod Collective, Midheaven and Forced Exposure. They’re supremely and expertly packaged, with vibrantly tantalizing cover art, with 180 gram vinyl, with extensive liners and pictures and lyric sheets. They’re reviewed with the sort of nebulous, breathless wonder that critics try to project onto the musicians themselves. In effect, a vast majority of these ‘rare’ recordings are touted as masterpieces, as genius works, as efforts superior to a host of contemporary CDs. And this just emphatically isn’t so.
Predictably, psychedelic/folk music comports itself in such a way as to be nearly beholden to a set of static criteria; very few aberrant cases exist; and I suppose it’s easy to see why: the psychedelic or folk brand is of a gleaming gold, especially when criminal wars are being waged, ‘morality’ is being legislated, and Lollapalooza can’t sell enough tickets to sustain the parasitic first leg of its innocuous ‘alternative’ invasion. And, in all honesty, Folkies are an interesting lot. They’re cited as mercurial savants, as preterite oracular bards, as salty reclusive song-crafters. For all the overheated characterization, they surely do nothing to lead one to believe that they’re unhappy in their pen. And it’s a small cell, with room for only a few tropes: there’s the meandering diarrhetic acoustic unimpeded, rushing over a wah-wah’d, or bottleneck’d electric; there’s the shed full of ethnic percussion, that’s either popped plaintively or MacLise’d into paroxysmal fits; there’s the pastoral flute or jew’s harp or some other ‘free-reed’ snaking around the periphery; and then there’s the singing which can divide neatly into two camps, or borrow messily from both, or—worse yet—traddle the demarcation of both camps, going from benign whisper to ‘apocalyptic’ yawp as quickly as Mountain Girl can say ‘Munchies.’
So, where does Finn fit in? Decidedly in the latter, methinks; for in songs like “Jerusalem”, or “What a Day”, Finn sounds vaguely enough like the Roy Harper of Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith cum grumpy glossolalist who thinks the more beatific and bogus his ‘anger’ is, the more ‘believable’ it is. Not to say that he can’t sing; Finn comes across as a pleasant Barrett-Drake amalgam in songs like “Where’s Your Master Gone?”, or “Patrice”. But it’s the same thing over and over and over again. Sometimes, it gets to comical proportions. As in the ostensible title-track, “Fades (Pass the Distance)”, Finn works through the song with a not dispassionate recitation, but in the track’s remaining seconds begins to ape some sort of idea of a besotted medieval madman, wandering about the heath spitting out a vocal refrain. To the lot of buy-back-my-childhood-from-Urban-Outfitters ironists, this is a familiar trick; even someone as musically banal (but, ironic!) as William Shatner has unearthed the desperate shriek at the fortunate conclusion of his hyper-mental cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”. It’s hardly coincidence that a track from Shatner’s 1968 LP, The Transformed Man, has found mention in this ‘review’; apparently, Will and Simon were quaffing from the same tumbler of chutzpah when they hammered their respective cuts; and this does more than signal the disapora from folky criteria to lyrical content, it affords me the ideal segue-way into narcotic relevance.
Even if the Spacemen 3 cleverly entitled a 1994 collection of demos and live-tracks, Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, it doesn’t make it OK. Case and Point: Sweetwater ‘garnered’ riotous applause at Woodstock. It’s impossible, of course, to determine if Finn, or Shatner, were taking drugs to make music to take drugs to, but there are some tell-tale signs present; lyrics, for one. Consider these lyrics from Finn’s “Hiawatha”: “I could wait forever / Yes my love—forever / If I was not afraid / Bet your cold perfection / Causes my erection / To drift into the shade / So I’ll stand here waiting / By the murky river / ‘till I can face you again”. So . . . this makes little sense; and even if it purported to, a critical listener would likely deduce that Finn’s “Hiawatha” is a song about a willing lover with and unwilling partner whose unwillingness induces the most dreaded male affliction of below the belt softness. I suppose it’s really up to the delivery; I can imagine Peter Wolf, or Iggy Pop, or even Robert Plant delivering the same lyrics in a highly effectual manner; but that’s Wolf, and Pop, and Plant—not Finn. Secondly, the instrumentation seems all out of wack; the guitars, and hand drums, and accordian/harmonium or whatever that pneumatic wheezing apparatus is/was can bare ly ke ep u p wi th the song’s movement. And it’s not just on “Hiawatha”; the same occurs in “Big White Car”, “The Courtyard”, and “Very Close Friend”. I suppose this is to illustrate the ‘dark’ folk property of this record, but it ends up only sounding like a musician—or musicians—too stoned to play, which is tedious to say the least.
It’s unfortunate that reissues like Finn’s Pass the Distance are lauded as masterpieces, as timeless musical odysseys, as musical critiques of a bygone era. These are intimidating, and ultimately incongruous characterizations, not to mention that such clichéd labeling is ridiculously relative and arbitrary. For this listener, hearing Loretta Lynn’s “Honky-Tonk Girl”, or watching Kentucky Fried Movie for the thousandth time, or holing up with a stack of MAD magazines is about as timeless and critical and masterful as one can hope to get. Digging through the strata of the past for something to soundtrack our current zeitgeist is not only a hopeless activity; it’s misguided in a can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees type of way. Old stars are just that; thankfully, music is like nature: regenerative. If you want masterful, and timeless ‘rock’ or ‘folk’ or ‘psychedelia’, it’s all here in the big ‘N’ Now. If you want critique:
Reviewed by: Stewart Voegtlin
Reviewed on: 2004-08-17