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Robbie Basho - Venus in Cancer

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Artist: Robbie Basho

Album: Venus in Cancer

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Oct. 15, 2006

The late Robbie Basho’s music has a special strangeness that is enhanced by his unawareness of how odd it really was. Basho was the hard sell of the Takoma team, a magnificent guitarist who insisted on singing impossibly romantic tales of Indian princesses on snow-capped mountains in a voice best described as the male counterpart of Yma Sumac’s. Even in the ’60s he was a man out of time; now, two decades after his death, he sounds like he came from another planet. Maybe he did, but if you have what it takes to follow him to his otherworldly dwelling, it’s a pretty amazing journey.

Venus In Cancer occupies a special place in Basho’s discography. It was released on Blue Thumb following five LPs on Takoma, and it realized Basho’s ambitions to be not just a singer-guitarist, but a total musician – a composer, arranger, player, and performer all rolled into one. Tompkins Square has treated it well; the mastering is present but in no way goosed, the booklet filled with testimonials by in-the-know types such as Steffen Basho-Junghans and Max Ochs.

The cover image of a nude maiden shielding her virtue from some androgynous imp with hooves for hands is pretty stupefying, but it’s the music that’ll really get you. Basho’s interlocking patterns for at least two six-strings on the opening title tune are lovely and understated, just the thing to lure you in. The other two guitar-only tracks are even better; “Kowaka D’Amour” is mysterious, complex yet masterfully articulated; “Cathedrals et Fleur de Lis” is dramatic and more than a little holy.

And then there are the vocal tracks. “Eagle Sails the Blue Diamond Waters” unfolds from a 12-string figure unashamed off its grandeur. Basho’s picking is gorgeous in itself yet really just a frame for Basho’s quivering, wordless vocal. It’s Incan princess stuff all the way, but utterly sincere. I shake my head every time it comes on, but damned if I don’t play it over and over again. The lyrics to “Song For The Queen” are so corny that they’d make Kahlil Gibran blush, but Basho doesn’t stop there; violas and French horn splash his vocal melodrama across a wide screen. “Wine Song (Sweet Wine of Love)” is less ambitious, and suffers by comparison; if you’re going to sing about moonbeams shining in someone’s eyes, take it over the top or take it home. Still, the bulk of Venus in Cancer is dream-spinning of a very high order. If you hold any affection for the work of James Blackshaw or Steffen Basho-Junghans and haven’t heard this stuff, be aware that treasure awaits you.

By Bill Meyer

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