“Is this very clear?” sings Laraaji several times on Vision Songs, Vol. 1. It never is — but hell, we love the guy anyway. No one in new age music is more avuncular and approachable than the Brian Eno affiliate with the flowing robes and Santa Claus beard, who pays the bills music can’t with workshops on the healing power of laughter. He’s best-known for his instrumental ambient compositions, including the third album in Eno’s Ambient series, Day of Radiance. But Vision Songs Vol. 1, a Numero Group reissue of some of his mid-’80s devotional music, has the man writing, performing, and singing what essentially amount to pop songs. Longtime Laraaji fans will recognize a lot of these from his other releases, including 2011’s Celestial Music compilation and Leaving’s Be Still and Glow reissue set. But taken together they’re like a blissed-out parallel to a modern pop album: 18 songs, tons of interludes, everything in praise of some higher power.
Aside from a few interludes, Vision Songs, Vol. 1 isn’t ambient. But Laraaji composes pop with the same tools at his disposal during the lengthy bliss-out sessions that made his reputation. He uses his dulcimer to beat out funky patterns, and the percussive attack of the mallets on the strings actually works better for these pieces than for his ambient ones, on which they occasionally take us out of the fluid ease of the music. He also likes to spell out ruminative chords on a chintzy organ, and the gentle pitter-patter of a drum machine is never far away. At the center of most of these pieces is his voice. He’s no Pavarotti, but his appreciation of the human voice and what it can do makes him a compelling vocalist nonetheless. He whoops, blusters, and chuckles over every song, at times twisting his vocals into abstractions that could make Young Thug envious.
The challenge for a label like Numero Group in releasing this music is selling it to those cynical about new age philosophy. Luckily Laraaji’s lyrics are light on the pseudoscience we expect from the genre and are closer in form and function to the psychedelic koans of Phil Elverum or Brian Wilson. “As I look out over this beautiful world / And I contemplate the origin of it all / I can only bliss out for days,” he sings on “I Can Only Bliss Out (F’Days).” It could be a lost lyric from “Please Let Me Wonder”. There are a lot of mantras in Sanskrit and other Asian languages, and Laraaji turns them into hooks, spinning “Hare Jai Jai Ram” and “Om Namah Shivaya” into bubblegum sing-a-longs. “Laws of Manifestation” could be a pre-rock ‘n’ roll show tune, and we wonder if Laraaji, who was born in 1943, isn’t remembering the jukebox staples of his childhood.
At times, the ridiculousness of what he’s singing can get in the way. “Cosmic Joe” (also on 2001’s My Orangeness album) chronicles its hero trying to get to a “mystical place called Holy Moe”, which is a terribly anticlimactic name for such a destination (though it did become a very good stage name for a Staten Island rapper). And, yes, a lot of what he’s singing scans as simple gibberish. But, as on his ambient albums, the overwhelming impression is of serenity and tranquility. Laraaji’s ease with himself is infectious, and he’s never anything less than lovable.