John Fahey

Sea Changes & Coelacanths: A Young Person's Guide to John Fahey (Table of the Elements)

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John Fahey’s late-’90s work is enigmatic, even troubling. The guitarist had by this time largely forsaken the gorgeous folk extrapolations of his youth in favor of a restless experimentalism. So despite its friendly subtitle, Sea Changes & Coelacanths—a double-disc reissue of material from this period—isn’t for the neophyte. Nevertheless, it is an affecting portrait of an aged artist striving for the new.

The most difficult material, originally released as 1997’s Womblife, appears right at the top of disc one. Four of these five tracks are as much sound collages as guitar pieces: Produced by Jim O’Rourke, they set Fahey’s primitive strumming against fields of electronically manipulated twitters and drones. These largely static works can sound meditative or merely meandering, depending on your mood. In contrast, this session’s untreated epilogue, “Juana,” is relatively straightforward, a Latin-flavored reverie bearing all the melodic potency of Fahey’s classics. But the cream of Sea Changes is disc two, a ’97 live performance originally issued under the typically droll title Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites. Once you get used to this acoustic master playing reverby electric, his undiminished gift for free-roaming lyricism shines through. During five lengthy ruminations, in which original and public-domain material mingles with Ellington, Artie Shaw and Bola Sete, you hear the haunted, heartbreaking sweep of American music as filtered through a single encyclopedic mind. — Hank Shteamer