Friday, January 15, 2010

A Solipcist's Prayer Meeting

Bill Fay – Still Some Light (Coptic Cat)

I should probably warn at the outset that this is likely to be a somewhat confused and disoriented piece of writing, the British singer-songwriter Bill Fay having been a musical infatuation of mine for a while now. I chanced upon the See For Miles reissue of his two albums originally made for Decca in the early 1970s in my local library some time in the early years of the last decade. I picked it up purely on the basis that I knew nothing about Fay and because the original cover images were striking. Later, when working on a piece on Fay for John Kell’s Unpredictable Same fanzine, I discovered that Fay was also being championed elsewhere. MOJO’s Jim Irvin had drawn attention to these classic, underappreciated albums, whilst Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy had been performing Fay’s ‘Be Not So Fearful’ in his solo concerts, having been introduced to the Decca albums by Jim O’Rourke.

After his Decca contract folded, Fay had not, as many imagined disappeared, but had continued to write and record music at home, away from the commercial imperatives of the music industry. Some of this was released by David Tibet on Current 93 on the excellent, spacious and mysterious ‘Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ set. It’s entirely probable that, much like the home tapes of the late, great Arthur Russell, there may be numerous unheard Fay recordings that are worthy of release.

‘Still Some Light’ contains the first brand new Fay recordings for over thirty years, recorded alone at home. It is packaged, delightfully, with a generous set of demo recordings made between 1970 and 1971 with the superb band that made ‘Time of the Last Persecution’ – guitarist Ray Russell, drummer Alan Rushton and bassist Daryl Runswick. All three musicians play beautifully. Russell, better known as a jazz musician with an enthusiasm for ‘freer’ musical forms makes some dramatic and searing contributions, emphasising Fay’s apocalyptic themes of cosmic battle between good and evil.

A number of these demo recordings are invaluable. There are stripped back versions of two songs from the eponymous debut album, which had been embellished with huge orchestrations from Mike Gibbs. ‘The Sun Is Bored’ has even greater menace with the focus shifted from string section to Russell’s violent bursts of guitar, whilst ‘Sing Us One of Your Songs May’ retains its eccentric charm. Then there is the bulk of ‘Time of the Last Persecution’, in prototype form, but largely faithful to the cleaner recordings that ended up on the album itself. The quality of these recordings is not good – there is plenty of residual hiss from the tape sources and the vocals frequently clip in a way that is not easy on the ear. Fay is honest about this in the sleeve notes, and I would argue that he is right that the feel and atmosphere of these sessions, as well as the quality of the songs and the musicianship, outweigh the limitations of the equipment used. It’s actually a great pleasure to hear these songs in such a raw, pure and direct form.

Perhaps even more notable amongst the demos are those songs that did not appear on either ‘Bill Fay’ or ‘Time of the Last Persecution’. There’s a wonderful ‘Love Is The Tune’, which eventually appeared on ‘Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ and the charming ‘Arnold is a Simple Man’ seems to be another of Fay’s brilliant character portraits of sympathetic eccentric individuals. It’s a more than worthy addition to his canon. More unexpected is the distorted sturm und drang of ‘There’s A Price Upon My Head’.

The new material is considerably harder to judge. Recorded at home using a Korg keyboard and a basic microphone, it is awash with generic synth pads, facsimile piano sounds, plinky mock pizzicato strings and very basic drum machines. These arrangements will likely present difficulties for those, like me, who love both the lavish Mike Gibbs scores and the excoriating immediacy of the band recordings. It’s quite a similar feeling to listening to those recent low budget albums Leonard Cohen made with Sharon Robinson, although ‘Still Some Light’ rather lacks their sense of irony.

‘Road of Hope’, ‘City of Dreams’, ‘Fill This World With Peace’, ‘Be at Peace with Yourself’, ‘Peace on Earth’ – the song titles certainly offered a clue as to the mood of ‘Still Some Light’. It’s a sincere and earnest collection of songs searching for the spiritual or the numinous in a troubled world. To many people, this may come across as idealistic, spiritual dreaming - to others, the sincere sense of peace, contemplation and devotion may strike a real, personal chord. It’s tempting to suggest, however, that Fay has already written a couple of definitive examples of this kind of spiritual-inspirational song with ‘Methane River’ and ‘Be Not So Fearful’. In those songs, the sentiments were mysterious and eccentric – here, they are sometimes transparently platitudinous. The nadir is probably ‘Hello Old Tree’, a mercifully brief and very whimsical track in which a tired sounding Bill takes a brief pause to commune with nature.

It’s also a challenge to adapt to Fay’s changed singing voice, which may have been diminished by his years of smoking. It’s a weaker instrument now, although much of its conversational, intimate character is retained. Whether Fay’s tepid attempts at vocal treatment – double tracking and reverb particularly – serve to improve the sound of the vocals is a matter for personal taste. I find myself frequently wishing he’d left them dry. Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all is the gentle, hushed dynamic, languid pace and consistent muted tone. Over twenty six tracks, it begins to become more oppressive than it is dreamy or peaceful. A little more rhythm would have been appreciated.

Yet, even though the production values are modest, perhaps even bizarre, there are still flashes of inspiration that remind us of Fay’s dignity, compassion and melodic invention. If we try and imagine these songs as home recorded prototypes for a studio recording that might never be, it starts to make a little more sense. Imagine the mysterious ‘City of Dreams’ with a real vibraphone and some dusty, brushed snare drum and it might sound a whole lot more evocative. There’s a humane soul in ‘There is a Valley’ and ‘Road of Hope’, in the frailty of Fay’s voice in the latter and in the expansive narrative of the former. One can’t help but wonder if the Willie who has a dream in the forest in ‘All Must Have a Dream’ is the same Willie of ‘Gentle Willie’ from the debut album. There’s a sense that the benign feeling at the heart of these songs might be a genuine inner peace and tranquillity from which a conscious rejection of conflict and intensity results.

In his sleevenotes, essentially a history of his career in the form of an embellished acknowledgements list, Fay comes across as a gentle, calm, very dignified human being. It might therefore be unfair to expect any grandstanding musical statements from him now. For all its pleading for hope and peace, ‘Still Some Light’ still seems like an insular and hermetic work. Perhaps it’s all the more interesting for that. Those who have not heard those two incredible Decca albums should certainly start there rather than here – they are wonderful recordings and, honestly, contain some of my favourite music of all time.

1 comment:

xtianDC said...

Not confused or disoriented at all! I'm still very much digesting this new batch of songs from Bill Fay and greatly enjoyed reading your well-formulated thoughts. My affection for those first two records is also I consider this in the same way I do Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow; I'm just grateful for its existence, even if it falls short of those essential cornerstone albums. Hard not to root for Mr. Fay in any case, isn't it?