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Vashti Bunyan - Lookaftering

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Artist: Vashti Bunyan

Album: Lookaftering

Label: DiCristina Stair Builders

Review date: Oct. 16, 2005

Released to little fanfare or acclaim in 1970, Just Another Diamond Day was already the young Vashti Bunyan's second go-round at making a career out of music. But much like her earlier forays into the rock world (courtesy of a Jagger/Richards penned debut single for Decca called "Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind"), her tenure as a member of Joe Boyd's famed stable of folk musicians wasn't made to last. Instead, she drifted away to Ireland and spent the bulk of the next 30 years focusing on raising a family.

Although it barely resonated at the time, Bunyan's debut spent the next three decades slowly gathering steam, eventually emerging as a cult collector's item. Around the turn of the new century, a whole host of younger musicians began paying their respects to her wispy folk; collaborations with the likes of Kieren Hebden, Devendra Banhart, and the Animal Collective quickly followed. And now, some 35 years after the release of her debut long-player comes Lookaftering, Bunyan's second album.

In addition to being cited as an influence by many of today's nascent folkies, Bunyan's music has become a constant namecheck for many journalists seeking to situate recent "freak folk" or "neo-folk" recordings in some larger outsider pantheon. It's rare that such a mythos develops at all, let alone for an artist who released one album and disappeared. In that sense, Lookaftering has the daunting task of not only competing with contemporary musicians, but also with Bunyan's own legacy.

So, let's set history aside for a moment because, honestly, comparing Bunyan's latest to her debut isn’t a fair fight. Lookaftering was produced by Max Richter, the author of a pretty great "post-Classical" record called The Blue Notebooks, and features guest appearances from Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Adem, Mice Parade's Adam Pierce and Espers’ Kevin Barker and Otto Hauser, among others. The guests form a talented support system for Bunyan's breathy, ethereal voice.

As far as the songwriting goes, Lookaftering finds Bunyan in much the same place she was 35 years ago, although her lyrical concerns tend obviously to reflect more matriarchal experiences. For me, Bunyan's music has always been about her iconic voice - beautiful and understated, possessing a remarkable lack of self-consciousness and isolation that made listening to her music feel like eavesdropping. In that sense, it seems like she's hardly missed a beat.

Richter's production is airy and bright, giving Bunyan ample room to breathe. There are electronic touches throughout the disc, such as the backwards bells and delayed vocal chorus of the somber "Here Before," but these are never anything less than tasteful, suitably updating Bunyan's sound for a newer generation. And as stated before, the guests seem quite content to blend in with the background - if you didn't see her name in the notes, you'd probably never have guessed that the lithe harp phrases on "Against the Sky" or "If I Were" came from the hands of Newsom. Richter steps up to his task in fine form, sharing the arrangement credits with Bunyan herself. As such, tracks like "Same But Different" approach baroque figures with cascading strings that never sound out of place.

Some find the mere prospect of this album troubling. After all, why mess with a clean track record after all these years? Undoubtedly, I can envision a few cynical bastards pegging this album as a little too adult contempo, as it lacks the sweet haze of Joe Boyd's earlier production. But that misses the point entirely. Although I'm sure we all wish for it, those of us without a lifelong legacy are in the fortunate position of never having to compare each and every creative impulse we pursue with things that we have already accomplished. The prospect of always having everything we do measured against one moment in our lives would be enough to make the weaker amongst us never leave the house. That Vashti Bunyan had the courage to step out of seclusion and follow up her classic debut is admirable. That she was able to do so with an excellent batch of songs is a joy to behold, pure and simple.

By Michael Crumsho

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