So what do you make of tribute albums? Are they places to be seen, a rag bag of cover versions by a bunch of people who have nothing in common except convenient admiration? Well ‘Railroad Cadences & Melancholic Anthems’ by José Medeles may pay homage to John Fahey but there’s a gulf between this album and the tribute formula. Available digitally on Jealous Butcher Records from May 20th (and sometime soon in physical shape) it’s simply stunning, a record of invention, ingenuity and inspiration.
This really shouldn’t be a surprise with a musician of José Medeles’s intuition at the heart of the project. A drummer of quality and distinction whose credits include The Breeders, Mike Watt, Scout Niblett and Modest Mouse, author, vintage drum specialist and founder of Portland’s renowned ‘Revival Drum Shop’, Medeles steps beyond beat-making, he’s an alchemist of rhythm. So if anyone can conceptualise ‘A Drummer’s Tribute’ to the legendary pioneer of American primitive guitar, John Fahey, that might just be José Medeles.
Two things though, firstly he wasn’t churlish enough to undertake such a project sans guitars. On ‘Railroad Cadences & Melancholic Anthems’ Medeles called on experimental acoustician Marisa Anderson, M. Ward and Chris Funk of The Decemberists to join him, guitarists he knew shared a deep affinity with Fahey’s music. Secondly, the plan for the ‘tribute’ was not a re-jigging Fahey compositions but to take inspiration from his seminal work and record a series of impromptu guitar/drum duets. Sure there should be a connection to his heritage but the drivers were geared to thinking forward, taking risks and being improvisational. Or as Medeles remembers the sessions, ‘friends making music in a sea of uncertainty and freedom’ using John Fahey’s music as a ‘the lighthouse that guided us home’.
The album opens with the warmly welcoming ‘Please Send To J.F.’, Marisa Anderson reaching out to Fahey’s country picking roots with her ripe, ringing acoustic patterns and quick-step licks. Alongside her Medeles steadily gathers traction, his resonant bass-drum pump and chattering snare keeping pace with the guitarist’s incisive chord pulls. It’s a joy filled introduction to the album’s first stop but what follows is much more unchartered, as you’d expect from a record spirited by Fahey’s instinct to explore beyond the comfort zone.
Take ‘Richness In Peace’, a track that swoons with contemplation around a slow suspended swing and M.Ward’ s quivering layers of surf toned guitar or Chris Funk’s first showing on the raga tinged ‘Golden’, where he injects agitation into his steely string sound with twangs and slides that come from nowhere. Pushed on by Medeles tense chaal-referencing rhythms, the tune strains under its own giddy momentum before the pair manage to pull back just before snapping point.
Although the guitar credits switch form track to track between Anderson, Funk and Ward, there’s a real cohesion to ‘Railroad Cadences and Melancholic Anthems’. It’s a record to get lost in, a musical narrative with enthralling twists and turns, the unfolding story of what Medeles calls their ‘set up, play, have fun and exhale’ approach to the sessions. The easy- riding alt- country chug of ‘Something Else’ takes a lengthy lilting stroll, Ward and Medeles taking it shoulder to shoulder before a tantalising wind down of single notes, pared down percussion and gentle dissonance. More dramatic maybe, the elemental ‘Before & After’ seems to track a summer storm, Anderson’s downpour of guitar complexities gathering intensity as the drums rumble and clatter darkly. In the aftermath the guitarist searches with growing desperation for those elusive blue notes amongst the swelling groans of Medeles’s naturally distorting drum sound – to say it’s powerful understates the impact.
Fahey’s penchant for the ‘what if’ and ‘why not’ take on music making also seeps through the grooves of the album. Both the cymbal washed harmonics of ‘Juxtaposition’ and the ghosting guitars of ‘Mid The Snow & Ice’ shimmer with an unstructured beauty. Even the burbling synths and eerie sonar make perfect sense set against Chris Funk’s yearning acoustic work on ‘Illumination’. Elsewhere the Fahey references are more overt both in style, the Delta blues-flamenco flavoured ‘Paper Snake’, and in subject on ‘Takoma’, where Medeles and Anderson’s mournful eastern toned collaboration reflects the low key experimentalism of Fahey’s early recordings on his self- created label.
Most poignantly ‘Railroad Candences & Melancholic Anthems’ closes with ‘Voice Of The Turtle’, a sound collage featuring Fahey talking about his guitar, creativity, imitation, Robert Johnson’s ghost and ‘light trances’. His words are like a premonition of what Medeles and partners have achieved here, a true connection with the past to create music that proves transformational, even transcendental for both those that make it and those that listen….all aboard!
Pick up a copy of ‘Railroad Cadences & Melancholic Anthems’ from your local record stockist or order direct from: https://josemedeles.bandcamp.com/album/railroad-cadences-melancholic-anthems-a-drummers-tribute-to-john-fahey