Freak Fruit - By the Fruits You Shall Know The Roots
“It is country and western in spirit," writes Matt Valentine. "By that I mean colloquial to all nations." He is describing the sumptuous flora and fauna embroidered by Erika Elder onto the cover of By the Fruits You Shall Know the Roots, the three-LP collection released as a communal venture between Time-Lag and Eclipse earlier this year, but his words extend as well to the omnivorous spirit of all the artists present, and, of course, their border-melting sounds. The flora, he says, depicts the Tree of Life, "a motif that crosses cultures and religions and its fruit is something that should concern us all." Fruits captures not a scene but a sensibility, one Valentine hopes is "utopian and universal".
Fruits does represent, in the words of Time-Lag’s Nemo Bidstrup, “a vague community,” one that he feels shares a certain “vibration”. Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance) explains the relation between Fruits and any foggy notions of community more straightforwardly: “More than anything, it’s a collection of friends that play shows together, hang out together and admire each other.” Tara Burke (Fursaxa) limits her definition to call it simply, “a wonderful collection of art and music”, and steers clear of assigning it any scene-defining properties: ”…there are so many wonderful artists and musicians that aren't a part of the project, so I think it can be sort of seen as a 'sample' of what is going on in the 'vague community' that Nemo is referring to.”
Bidstrup says the collaborative nature of the project came from a desire to access as much of the participants’ creativity as possible, and from its sheer size. Fruits began life as a daydream of Chasny: “I think I was driving around in my car about seven years ago when I thought of the idea,” he recalls. “It's definitely inspired by the classic box set, Harmony Of The Spheres, the one that came out on Drunken Fish so long ago.” Fruits got its format - three LPs, one side for each artist - from Spheres, and its luxurious packaging concept from the 1971 triple LP set Glastonbury Fayre: Revelations.
After a chat between Chasny, Bidstrup and Eclipse’s Ed Hardy at Terrastock 5 in October of 2002, the project gathered steam. Jack Rose, Dredd Foole, Fursaxa and Joshua Burkett, in addition to Chasny and Valentine, were asked to contribute. Burkett brought Kemialliset Ystävät’s Jan Anderzen into the fold, and also contributed the undulating, black-and-white labels. Erika Elder created the tri-panel cover, Valentine penned a fable and Birdstrup designed a 36” x 24” poster. Clint Simonson, of De Stijl, printed the cover. Valentine describes the project as, “a tapestry that will hopefully have heirloom qualities.” Unfortunately, the set already has the rarity of an heirloom, for its complex packaging limited the number of copies to 1,000, all of which sold out in a wink. Bidstrup says he and Hardy have discussed a CD release, but as of yet nothing is definite.
In an age when the experiencing of music has become increasingly intangible, Fruits is defiantly physical. The three LPs come wrapped in a thick sleeve of art paper. Opening the sleeve reveals Elder’s three-paneled gatefold of a surreal bucolic idyll. The flipside reads scroll-like, giving out song titles, recording info and a few words of gratitude. Unfolding the sleeve unveils Bidstrup’s poster. The LPs themselves sit loosely, which means they slide out, the negative space and gray penumbras of Joshua’s lettering staring out from their little plastic windows. The package has a beautiful clumsiness that forces the listener to interact wholeheartedly with Fruits every time it’s opened.
Bidstrup sources Fruits’s packaging concept to his obsession with the Glastonbury Fayre collection. Revelations was produced and sold as a way to raise funds for the free English arts festival of the same name and features such pleasant indulgences as a 32-page illustrated booklet, silver pyramid and geodesic dome inserts, exclusive tracks by the artists involved (among them the Grateful Dead, Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Hawkwind, Daevid Allen and Gong, and Pete Townshend), and of course, a fold-out poster sleeve. Bidstrup pays a direct homage to the GF poster in his design, bordering the musician’s names with the same flowing tree trunks found on the earlier collection’s poster, and even includes the declaration, “All Free”. In his fable, Valentine pushes the inspiration of GF a step further.
Valentine describes his fable as “one dimension of the story of folk who are introducing their tonal worlds in a blind date with the beholden.” Fruits grows an imagined space, where listener and audience commune, and the atmosphere, engrossing and immersive, is not unlike that of a festival. With more than twenty minutes, each artist has time to stretch out and explore, and the audience is treated to a jarring procession of styles.
The pairing of Six Organs and Jack Rose comprises the first LP. Chasny’s seven-part suite surges ever forward on the back of abrupt transitions and a rough-hewn but effective logic. On “If There’s Time, Sing! Sing! Sing!” the interplay of pungent solitary chords, pinprick high tones and tense pauses sets up a diffuse call-and-response pattern. The meditative calm it generates is vaporized by part two, as a flock of bells forces entry, impish voices chatter and dissonant needles of guitar stab from below. “Reflection of the Reflected” and the concluding “If There’s Space, Dance! Dance! Dance!” swim into menacing waters in which roam phosphorescent, electric tone creatures.
Chasny manages, in an oblique manner, to map the disparate stars of his sky into a shadowy constellation. The sparse solo guitar of the “If There’s Time…” evolves later into the harping strums, aggressive bass note buzz and criss-crossing chords of “Drinking with Jack”. The diving tones of “Reflection…” resurface as a multi-tracked chorus on “Almost Morning, Almost…Almost” then mutate anew into speaker-shaking bass shivers on the closing “If There is Space…”.
Where Chasny spins a tale that mimics the contours of a narrative, Jack Rose, recording his two pieces live without the aid of overdubs, enchants with a visceral string-rattling rapture that bypasses the conscious altogether. He aptly titles his first piece “Sun Dogs”. The title refers to the high intensity points of light that appear on the horizontal of the solar phenomena known as the 22-degree Halo. The points are often called “mock suns”, and Rose’s clamorous drone of undulating midrange, brain-splitting highs and flecks of ambient string noise sends off sonic shards that have no traceable source. Trying to discover the center for the piece becomes so maddening that one soon gives in to Rose’s wizardry and accepts “Sun Dogs” as a living, pulsating creature, entirely unpredictable and possessing a will all its own.
Sides three and four, by MV + EE Medicine Show with Chris Corsano and Dredd Foole respectively, are the most forceful and challenging of the set, but each arrives at their power via opposite routes.
MV and EE’s “Massage for the Dakota Sioux” is a combustible meeting of live improvisation and tape collage. On first listen, it overwhelms the listener with its restless, probing chaos. As Valentine relates, the majority of the piece was recorded in one day at his and Elder’s Vermont ranch. Various microphones and recording devices were positioned around the house, including the rafters, a method that explains the ever-shifting angles and unsteady sense of space that hangs on the piece. MV and EE cram a teeming of bazaar of instruments from around the world into “Massage’s” twenty minutes. The listing itself of these tools speaks its own poetry: oscarina, kalimba, cumbus, kecapi, ukele, harmonica, yayli tambur, struti box, cocola percussion, 12-string guitar. Corsano, however, creates a center of gravity that turns MV and EE’s wandering space debris into orbiting satellites. Corsano’s tool-kit is as varied as his cohorts: booming bass drum stutters, frenetic ride cymbals, a washboard, a log drum, ominous tom patterns. The dense wayward passages of drones, piercing flutes, creaking banjo ostinatos, chord fragments, tape hiss and static, looped streaks of harmonica and much more stream by in ever-more dizzying eddies. But a rhythmic motif, in the form of ringing metallic bowls, resurfaces periodically to provide “Massage” with a hazy ritualistic miasma.
Foole’s side, while preferring a perverse, solitary intimacy to ecstatic collaboration, is no less intimidating. His two-part “Supplication for Wonderland” taps a mainline straight to the listener’s breast with just voice, microphone and a little guitar. On “Supplication, Part I”, Foole, captures a cathartic moment. He uses the microphone and the cavernous echo of the room he’s in to unleash a stunning cascade of vocal cord vibrations. He gasps, splutters, wheezes, mutters, whines, chirps, yelps, whispers, barks, nibbles on the microphone, gurgles a couple of death-rattles and generally contorts the vocal mechanism into every shape possible. If it were a po-faced avant garde experiment, one could be forgiven for finding it entirely unenjoyable. It is indulgent, but in a very human way, giving form to that Paleolithic urge to uncork, in a single torrent, all of one’s bottled-up, mixed-up, unspeakable emotion.
From Foole’s primitive emotional purge, one slides into Fursaxa’s hypnotic spell. Tara Burke says the theme of “Aegean Lore” stemmed from her interest in The Odyssey, and especially the dual role females inhabit in the Greek epic as both creative powers and destructive temptresses. In a dream Burke had about a make-believe island called Circe, she explains, “a group of the women characters from The Odyssey were banished to [the island] because they were seen as harmful, tempting witches.” Burke generates “Aegean Lore’s” incantory quality by multi-tracking and looping first an accordion, then gently pulsing guitars, then her voice. As she sings over and over, “Sirens from Circe”, she erases all meaning save for the line’s aural effect. The piece eventually melts away, but not before it’s sway has thoroughly burned itself into one’s memory as a nagging, far-off echo.
After the grand narrative, formal, emotional and mythic explorations of the previous five sides, Jan Anderzen and Joshua Burkett’s six micro-studies in trans-continental postal collaboration could easily slip by unnoticed, so subtle and fragile are they. But the pair gets maximum effect from minimal ingredients. “Nature’s Way” builds from a three-note riff, then adds guitar slides, queasy bass and a warbling synth. The processional “Ten Man Mop”, marching on the clip-clop of a thumb piano and gamelan-like gongs, layers so many stunted melodies together that soon they become imperceptible from one another. The deeper one listens into these pieces, the more lost one becomes.
And so it goes with Fruits as a whole: The harder one tries to map out common ground between those involved or find some narrative rope that could lash their stories to a single mast, the more one veers off course. Chasny suggests one possible trail on “Almost Morning…”. It is a lullaby for insomniacs, which prescribes, by first name only, some figures from music’s history (John, Robbie, Lightnin’, Townes, Tim, Matt, Tara and more) who might ease one through long, disturbed nights. Matt Valentine’s puzzling fable suggests another path. But it is pregnant with meaning that won’t be born. Each line forces the reader to double-back, hunt for clues, and then, once found, the next line shifts perspective, spins a new syntactic puzzle, dangles ambiguous pronouns and points out roads that lead to a wider semantic unknown.
Valentine relates that MV+EE's "Massage" takes its inspiration from Bruce Baillie's "Mass for the Dakota Sioux", a film he describes as "a masterpiece of cosmic Americana and ultra-dimension weightlessness." In those films Baillie turns his outsider lens on bikers, tracts of pre-fab housing, traffic jams, parades, pedestrians and more as he cobbles together a new vision of the American landscape. It's this weightless dimension that Fruits occupies. In Dredd Foole's hands the voice becomes a menagerie of demented, phantasmal howls; Valentine and Elder rub banjo strings and magnetic tape together until they combust; Rose alchemically alters his steel strings until they catch fire; Chasny grows drones in from the soil of songs. Into this dimension, where borders between musical styles become so porous they cease to exist, where familiar road signs become elusive symbols and the crooked finger of the strange points out the way ahead, the community of Fruits rides, pursuing the roots that are "colloquial to all nations".
By Matthew Wuethrich