Several years ago, at the dawn of the 21st century there was talk of an ‘electronic campfire’, of a new pastoralism in electronic music which could be seen in the work of Four Tet or Boards of Canada.
If, more recently, electronic music has taken a more Dystopian turn (and frankly, who can blame it?), Mind Over Mirrors’ Jaime Fennelly has done a Thoreau (or a Bon Iver) and gone back to the backwoods, locked himself in a cabin in the wilderness (Driftless, Wisconsin to be exact) and found a way back to folk music via electronic music.
This immediately sets my hair on edge, my pet hate in 21st century being hipster faux folk played by men in beard in plaid shirts who probably couldn’t change a plug, never mind cut down a tree (I won’t name names, you know who they are).
Undying Colors is a surprisingly compelling and convincing album though, as Fennelly interrogates folk forms and reassembles them for the present, gathering together Chicago music royalty from Circuit des Yeux’s Haley Fohr to Iron and Wine’s Jim Becker - with a Bitchin’ Baja on engineering duties - to help him.
The first track Restore & Slip is essentially a fiddle jam, something that could effortlessly slip into a Celtic connections programme or a traditional bar, but subtly fitted out with Fennelly’s repeated harmonium part fading into the ether, suggesting the exhilaration of early Animal Collective, or the ecstasies of Terry Riley.
Epic Gravity Wake pits Haley Fohr (currently making some of the most interesting music around as Circuit des Yeux and Jackie Lynn) against Eleventh Dream Day’s Janet Bean, to compete in muttering the most out there statement about the cosmos.
The fiddles are back on Glossolalac though more restrained here, and used in a manner more akin to Reich’s use of guitar on Electric Counterpoint, with Haley Fohr’s voice floating ethereally above it all.
Gray Clearer exemplifies the success of the approach, where the drone of a traditional instrument – the harmonium - segues perfectly into the modernist drone of an analog synth and back, as effortlessly as in a piece by the late Pauline Olivieros.
This album isn’t as groundbreaking as some critics seem to be making it out to be; it errs on the side of good taste if anything, and lacks the truly radical edge of the best avant-garde music. However, Undying Color does have its own particular beauty, and overcomes its inherent absurdities. Whether reinstating folk music into the tradition of the American avant-garde, or the avant-garde into American vernacular music, it reminds you that there are (still) things to love about America.