Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Ivytree - Unburdened Light

Portrait of man under hood and tree with guitar, 2001
 It was the early two thousands and the time of the CD-Rtist. It was a mini-revolution of sorts. No more endless hours dubbing cassettes or paying a small fortune to manufacture CDs. Vinyl was nearing the end of its lengthy digital exile, but not yet a feasible option. Word got around that you could make your own CD at home. Some of us had inkjet printers with CD-trays, so you could even make it look ‘real’. Mine still works, as does my Sony Mini-Disc recorder, the portable studio of the CD-Rtist. 

 My friend Ian Wadley passed me my first CD-R, a beautiful warbly recording of Ian and Alastair Galbraith’s end-of-tour jam in Ian’s Brisbane abode. Just the thought that you could record on a Walkman and make a cd on your computer at home! Worlds of possibility. I had been in the room that day the Ian/Alastair magic transpired. So was Jon Dale, who not long afterwards released my first CD-R Organ Notes on his micro-imprint The Rhizome Label.  

 Jon was always hooking me up with new things to listen to, a pilotage that happily continues to this day. He told me about a couple of guys in San Fransisco called The Blithe Sons who were recording their music outdoors and had reportedly listened to Organ Notes in the car on the way to one of their locations. Jon sent me their Waves of Grass CD-R and a fresh wind blew through the window.  

 Here was a new music I could relate to: spontaneous and magical, full of light and space, playful and simple, and intuitively improvised. Fragments of melody nestled in harmonium drones, and the environment bleeding into the microphone. A music that celebrated the natural world. You could smell the grass! 

Portrait of beard with man and guitar, 2002
 I was soon exchanging mail with Blithe Son Glenn Donaldson, and soaking up the CD-Rs issued on the mysterious Jewelled Antler label he ran with band mate Loren Chasse. Outdoor recordings, beguiling early christian and naturalist references combined with Glenn’s artwork of collaged birds: ninja birds, heraldic birds, monastic birds, birds in armour.  The music was in orbit, full of space, quiet time-dissolving jams; these guys were listening to Morton Feldman on the car stereo!

 And the song titles were like poetry: “Everyone of Us a New Leaf”, “Inner Groves”, and “I Fell Asleep in the Sun-bleached Grass (I’ll just Pass Away)”. Releases were recorded at “True Cross”, under bridges, in meadows, bunkers and headlands. And the bands! The Franciscan Hobbies, Thuja, Of, Buried Civilisations, Once and Future Herds. It was a nature/psych union that felt like the perfect tonic for the time.

 An email group called “Routes for War and Travel” linked like-minded CD-Rheads around the globe, with a new axis joining the dots between Finland, New Zealand and the Bay Area. Great labels too: Deserted Village, Pseudo Arcana, La La Lal et al. A steady flow of CD-R releases was arriving in my letter box until at one point, and for the only time in my wonderful underground music journey, I almost had too many things to listen to. Almost.

Jewel in the Crown
 The CD-R revolution didn’t last long, and with cassette revivalism poking its head around the corner, the vinyl resurrection was the final nail. To be honest, none of us complained. But I do have some favourites from the flash flood of CD-R releases, and gently bobbing on the crest of the wave is Volume 3 in the Jewelled Antler Library of 3” CD-Rs: The Ivytree - The Sun is the Lamp.

 Glenn had already released a pinnacle of the Jewelled Antler catalogue with The Birdtree album Orchards and Caravans, a beautifully constructed work of fuzzy home studio four-track odes, redolent of English acid-folk, but bathed in a DIY/West Coast glow. The Ivytree release was more paired back, and with parts recorded live to Mini-Disc in a bunker at the Marin Headlands, the environment was a palpable presence. An acoustic guitar and voice soaked in concrete reverb, transmitting a fragile beauty and summoning something other. The Ivytree felt closer to the darkness and light of Haino-san than the pastoral joys of Heron. 

Portrait of keyboard with man and harmonica, 2003
 An album Winged Leaves followed soon after and a split release with Australian Chris Smith was the last gasp for The Ivytree (although Glenn carried the torch through his involvement with two other unheralded West Coast folk classics - Flying Canyon's self titled album and the Giant Skyflower Band’s Blood of the Sunworm.) 

 Cut to 2017, and news that Glenn had dusted off the Mini-Disc and was transferring archival Ivytree sessions to his computer was met with much anticipation in this household, and as you may have gleaned, more than a touch of nostalgia. But there is more than nostalgia going on here…

 The resulting album, Unburdened Light, released on the exemplary Recital label, has life force coursing through it’s veins. It’s all there. The field recordings, the quietude, worlds of reverb-drenched dreaming home-spun on an acoustic guitar, casio keyboards and organ. Songs that radiate from the speakers like tree auras in a Charles Burchfield painting.

There’s more too. A surprise piano ballad “Evil is Circular” almost steals the show with its Budd-like changes, notes suspended in the air. A stunning reprise of the Canadian folk tragedy “She is the Swallow Pt. 2” (Pt. 1 previously aired on Winged Leaves). And what about that voice? Real and sung from the heart, the lessons of Wyatt learnt, bravely pushing into the upper register. It goes straight in.

 Hey friends, these times are about as fast as we’ve gone and it’s all happening all the time. Kind of nice to park the car for a while. It seems to me that we need records like this now more than ever. So turn off your phone, lie on the couch and put this record on. Close your eyes, feel that breeze blowing through the window and dream a little.  Walk the fields in unburdened light.

Unburdened Light is released on 4 May on Recital - pre-orders available here.

Leighton Craig

1 comment:

  1. Love your review so much, Leighton. Totally agree with you! It's more than mere nostalgia. We carry this (way of being) music with us all the time. Much love, Francois