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Thursday, Dec. 8, 2005 08:45 pm

Serenity then — and again

Vashti Bunyan makes a comeback with Lookaftering

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Vashti Bunyan Lookaftering (DiCristina/Fat Cat)
here are comebacks, and then there are comebacks. The gap between British folksinger Vashti Bunyan’s debut, Just Another Diamond Day, and its follow-up, Lookaftering, lasted 35 years. By music-biz standards, that’s an eternity, at least enough time for one pop tart to be born (or, more accurately, spawned in the lab), to enact three or four publicist-contrived comebacks (the triumphant return from rehab! the newfound independence after the painful divorce! the spiritual awakening!), and to oblige her handlers by retiring before the cellulite and crow’s feet start to bum everyone out. Bunyan spent the bulk of her self-imposed hiatus rearing children and managing a small farm — the new album’s title refers to her domestic responsibilities — and somehow, with the help of well-placed admirers, overcoming her creative insecurities. That Bunyan had a recording career in the first place is a minor miracle. Discovered by industry impresario, Rolling Stones producer, and noted lecher Andrew Loog Oldham, the art-school dropout recorded a handful of singles in the late ’60s, only two of which were even released. Soon thereafter, she fled London in a horse-drawn wagon, bound for the Outer Hebrides. She continued to write songs during her lengthy pilgrimage, however, and when a friend advised her not to “hide her light under a bushel,” Bunyan called producer Joe Boyd, the man responsible for seminal albums by Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, and the Incredible String Band. Boyd, who had tried unsuccessfully to lure her into the studio three years before, jumped at the chance to record her. With support from various Brit-folk luminaries (including Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band and Dave Swarbrick and Simon Nicol of Fairport Convention), he committed to tape the 14 weird, lovely, and impossibly fragile songs that compose her debut. Although Boyd’s pristine chamber-folk arrangements were perfectly suited to Bunyan’s otherworldly soprano and her little hippie idylls (featuring lyrics about grubs, glowworms, sheep, swallows, and the elements), Diamond Day was released in 1970 to zero fanfare. It remained mostly unheard for the next three decades, the secret prize of fanatical collectors. After being championed by freak-folk kingpin Devendra Banhart, the album was reissued in 2000 by DiCristina, earning accolades from critics and the admiration of underground scenesters such as Piano Magic and Animal Collective. Bolstered by this encouragement, Bunyan emerged from seclusion to make guest appearances on CDs by the aforementioned artists. She also bought a Mac, taught herself how to use its music program, and made demo versions of 11 new songs. Under the direction of producer Max Richter, she rerecorded the tracks with instrumental backing by Banhart, harp iconoclast Joanna Newsom, and Mice Parade’s Adam Pierce, an endeavor that culminated in Lookaftering, an album that picks up where Diamond Day left off. With its gossamer orchestration and domestic/agrarian themes, Bunyan’s sophomore effort successfully re-creates the delicate magic of her debut without slavishly replicating its sound. Her flutelike, slightly tremulous voice remains as ethereal as ever, and Richter wisely keeps the instrumentation from overpowering it. Graced by piano, harp, strings, woodwinds, and bells, Bunyan’s reveries gleam like ice-glazed saplings at dawn. Although the CD is so consistently, unimpeachably serene that it may put some listeners to sleep (Joni Mitchell is a riot grrl by comparison), its gentle beauty should appeal to anyone who has ever swooned to Drake’s “Pink Moon” or mourned the untimely death of Sandy Denny. Whether she’s singing about the uncanny wisdom of a child (the Wordsworthian “Here Before”) or the road not taken (the ennui-tinged “Wayward”), Bunyan makes the everyday seem sublime.
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