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Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006 07:23 am

The guitar is the star

You can be a hobo, a maestro, or in the case of artists on Imaginational Anthem, a little of both

Various Artists Imaginational Anthem: A Guitar Anthology (Near Mint)

Various Artists
Imaginational Anthem: A Guitar Anthology
(Near Mint)

O glorious guitar, the sound of wood made radiant, the sound of metal made vegetal, a vibrating synthesis of opposing elements housed in a vaguely female-shaped form! Unlike the elitist piano, which costs a bundle to buy and maintain and can’t be lugged around at a moment’s notice, the guitar is basically democratic: You can strum it alone or with others; you can bang out barre chords in the basement or pluck forth an intricate Bach prelude in the concert hall. The guitar doesn’t care whether you’re a hobo, a maestro, or, in the case of the artists collected on Imaginational Anthem, a little of both. Aside from one track (a duet for guitar and piano by Gyan Riley and his famous composer dad, Terry), this exquisitely sequenced compilation consists entirely of fingerpicked guitar instrumentals performed by an assortment of prodigies past and present. Visionary forebears such as Sandy Bull and John Fahey are well represented, as are newer talents such as Harris Newman, a Montreal musician with post-rock tendencies, and the Slip’s Brad Barr, the sole envoy from jam-band land. Neither is the sisterhood slighted: Old-school virtuosa Janet Smith and 25-year-old hotshot Kaki King both make memorable appearances. There’s even a track by Bern Nix, best known for his avant-jazz collaborations with the likes of Ornette Coleman and John Zorn. Although all the contributors have idiosyncratic, immediately recognizable styles, the overall effect is harmonious, from the Medievalist blues of Harry Taussig’s “Dorian Sonata” to the epiphanic raga of Jack Rose’s “White Mule III” to Max Ochs’ twin renderings of the luminous title track. But the real star is the guitar itself, not its disciples. It pings and throbs, hums and murmurs, chimes and chatters, an entire orchestra crammed into one lap-sized package.

Angels of Light & Akron/Family
Akron/Family & Angels of Light
(Young God)

Depending on your tolerance for so-called freak folk — the latest hipster-sanctioned descriptor for acoustic-based music that doesn’t reek of unchecked earnestness — ex-Swans leader Michael Gira is either a hero or a villain. As the founder of Young God Records, he may be lauded or cursed for unleashing Devendra Banhart on an unsuspecting world a few years back. Since then, Banhart has been pretty much ubiquitous — ridiculously prolific in his own right and a tireless champion of lesser-known acts. But if Banhart is freak folk’s Jesus (long hair, full beard, swarthy complexion, and all!), Gira is its Jehovah. Now Gira has a new messiah to pimp: Akron/Family, a ramshackle New York City-based collective that does double duty as Angels of Light (a.k.a. Gira and whomever he anoints to back him). Last year, Akron/Family released its self-titled debut and supported Gira on the latest Angels of Light outing; now the band wears both hats at once on the split CD Akron/Family & Angels of Light, which consists of seven original tracks sans Gira, four tracks penned and sung by Gira, and one Gira-voiced cover, Bob Dylan’s “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” Although the AoL songs generally lack the lunatic energy of the A/F contributions, Gira sounds more vital than he has in years, whether he’s revisiting an old Swans number or simply basking in his young cohorts’ cacophonous soundscapes. His saturnine baritone gains new strength from these measured infusions of chaos, but it’s the A/F originals that stick with you in the end. In the incantatory “Future Myth,” the band marshals ambient noise, avant-minimalism, ’70s prog, and anthemic art-folk, creating a clattering triumph and a magisterial disaster in eight minutes that, against all odds, transpire too quickly.
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