Imaginational Anthems Vol. 4 is the new compilation in Tompkins Square’s excellent series of songs from the so-called “American Primitive” strain of folk music. This particular edition features only new artists, and a quick look at the record sleeve indicates I have no previous knowledge of any of them. For an instant, it left me perplexed. I am completely unqualified to be reviewing any of these artists. My ear for guitar, as well as my lacklustre playing, means that many of the heroic feats and complex tunings that are used in this style of music will go over my head. Aurally, I will be able to appreciate the music. Technically that’s a different story altogether.
Thankfully, respite soon came to bring me solace. While listening to the CD for the first time, I was joined by the owner of the couch I had been sleeping on. Once Nick Jonah Davis’s contemplative “San Cristobal de Las Casas” finished, he turned to me, “Is this the new compilation by Tompkins Square?” That was his bandmate we had been listening to (they play together in the band Escapologists). The jigsaw was beginning to fit together. Once I found out that Tyler Ramsey is in Band of Horses and William Tyler used to play with Silver Jews, I felt a whole lot better.
In reality, though, it is extremely satisfying to listen to this compilation with very little background information, trying to work out where the musicians come from and, likewise, their influences. All of the artists play solo, with few to no overdubs, and they are all new artists, at least in terms of their solo work. Stylistically, they can be split roughly into two categories. On one hand are the guitarists in tune with the works of Robbie Basho or Jack Rose, creating extended pieces with a willingness to experiment. On the other hand are those with traditional song at heart: blues, ragtime, and Appalachian folk with a willingness for the guitar to tell the story. There is no singing on this album.
Opening track “Paranoid Cat” by Chris Forsyth is one of the more experimental tracks here, while also featuring one of strongest melodies, a budding sunrise augmented by drones, never feeling anything but vital. His good work is continued by William Tyler on “Between Radnor and Sunrise”, which ironically feels less a sunrise, more a dusty, back porch in the afternoon. The power with which Tyler manages to imbue the guitar as the song continues instantly recalls the wondrous things Chris Brokaw manages to do with the instrument.
“Miniature Dwellings II”, Sam Moss’s offering, still maintains this invention on the guitar but also feels more rooted in classic rock of the past. I would be lying if I didn’t say that listening to this song makes me pine for Neil Young’s Harvest, which is my way of offering strong praise. The melody, which manages to sound as if it is rolling across itself, is pure Young magic.
The most daring, and unique, song on the album is by Nick Jonah Davis. “San Cristobal de Las Casas” is quite remarkable for its pace, largely eschewing the frenetic page that so many of the other players take here, instead revelling in each note. It makes for a slow, contemplative composition that reaches some dark places but is well worth a visit.
Within the second half of the album, the traditional strains of folk music take larger effect. “Song for Eugene” by Pat O’Connell is a jaunty affair with a hint of Mississippi John Hurt; “Jemmy Steel” from C Joynes unlocks a treasure trove of Celtic pathos, and Micah Blue Smaldone’s “Rose March” is a teasing blues stinger with a ragtime rhythm. Considering Micah used to play guitar in a number of punk and hardcore bands, it’s perhaps one of the most surprising songs here.
Saving the best for last, though, Mike Fekete’s “Birds on the Lake” is stunning in its panoramic charms. It has that special quality of sounding very simple and complex at the same time. Its natural rhythm and slight melodic variations hide the fact that this is a song with a complex structure. It’s incredible how quickly it’s 4:44 running time passes by.
There are just ten tracks on this compilation, but this seems the perfect number. There really is no filler, and there is no need to feel daunted; this is simply a collection of great folk songs which show that there is plenty more to look forward to, especially if these artists keep producing music of this quality.