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Joseph Allred, "O Meadowlark"

cover imageI first encountered Joseph Allred on a massive compilation of American Primitive guitarists that I believe surfaced on the Dying For Bad Music blog sometime last year, but my ears must not have been working that week, as the experience did not leave a strong impression. In my defense, my ears were likely hopelessly numbed by the sheer volume of relatively similar (and often wonderful) artists who have worked in that vein over the years. John Fahey cast a long shadow and inspired a lot of dazzling instrumental performances, but the best compliment one can pay such an iconoclast is to use the American Primitive style as a mere starting point for a distinctive new vision. And if there is one thing Joseph Allred has (besides virtuosity), it is definitely vision, as O Meadowlark is an impressionistic suite of songs that abstractly chronicles the travails and ultimate transfiguration of Allred's alter-ego Poor Faulkner. Of course, there is a long tradition of storytelling among steel-string guitarists, as it adds some welcome depth and color to what could otherwise just be a mere display of instrumental prowess. To his credit, Allred is on an entirely different level in that regard, as his stories are singularly strange and unique ones and he channels them vividly. This is a fascinating release.

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I have historically not placed too much importance on the stories behind albums by solo guitarists, as my attitude has always been that I am only interested in the inspiration behind a song once I already like it (it rarely works in the opposite direction).In the case of Joseph Allred, however, it is impossible to separate his instrumental work from his larger and more complex vision.Central to that vision is the character of Poor Faulkner, whom Allred describes as "a character I sometimes tell stories about in my music, or....assume his perspective and play songs from there."On the surface, Poor Faulker is a fairly modest invention as far as mythic alter-egos are concerned: "He's a very lonely middle aged man who lives in a house in a remote part of Tennessee. He thinks the house is haunted."Thankfully, things get much better for him over the course of these six songs.That said, O Meadowlark was originally recorded over the course of a single night with no overarching vision in mind, yet a coherent narrative emerged to Allred when he listened back to what he had done.In a poetic and abstract way, the song titles provide a window into that arc, but the essence is that Poor Faulkner is lured into the woods by a bird, experiences two angelic visitations, and ultimately ascends to heaven.Absent from this album is a channeling of the vision that the angel shows Poor Faulker before his ascension, but that will apparently be the basis for a future album.As is probably quite clear from the album's premise, Allred has an intense passion for religion, arguably resembling a kind of Appalachian David Tibet.In fact, I will be surprised if the two artists do not eventually collaborate in some way.The pair certainly have a deep affinity, as Allred has performed the Methodist hymn "Idumea" in the past, which he first encountered through Current 93.

Notably, Allred did not become fully devoted to the acoustic guitar until around 2011 (as a means for coping with a family crisis).Before then, he was involved with a series of eclectic noise, ambient, and drone projects, as well as some relatively heavy Tennessee-based rock bands.That eclectic background, as well as his deep interest in Indian drone music, has no doubt informed Allred's guitar work in some curious and inscrutable ways.While it is impossible to draw a linear path from his many divergent interests to O Meadowlark, it is clear that Allred has a very unique approach to structure and composition.In fact, I would describe this album as "post-structure," albeit in a good way: there are no structured chord progressions, no predictably recurring themes, no consistent melodies, and no rigid tempos.Instead, the melodies and the chords unfold in an organic and spontaneous way.I suppose that is what people normally call "improvising" and it may very well be that, but Allred's previous album was much more tightly composed and conventionally melodic.Consequently, it has to have been a deliberate choice to leave that behind in favor of O Meadowlark's more fluid approach.That said, there are a number of structured melodic passages throughout the album, particularly on the more banjo-driven works like the title piece and the Eastern-tinged "The Porch at Night."Such frameworks rarely remain in place for the duration of an entire song, however, as Allred has a tendency to build towards explosive crescendos of rapidly picked notes.The sounds are very much in the tradition of Basho and Fahey, but Allred's approach owes just as much to Coltrane’s sheets of sound as it does to his fellow six-stringers.

After hearing O Meadowlark, I immediately picked up 2016’s similarly excellent Fire & Earth and found it to be quite a different experience.In some ways, that album is a significantly stronger one, as the individual pieces are more memorable and distinct from one another.Also, I very much appreciated the occasional harmonium and vocal interludes, as they broke up the sequencing nicely.If O Meadowlark has a flaw, it is that the six songs flow together as a constantly shifting whole rather than asserting their own identities.That is presumably by design, however, and partially illustrates where O Meadowlark truly shines: it is a large-scale work and a major creative leap forward, deftly manipulating dynamics to remain compelling for over forty minutes without any repeating hooks or flourishes that recall the work of other artists.Aside from definitively establishing a unique voice, O Meadowlark is a masterclass in balance and fluidity, as Allred seamless moves from languorous oases of sweep-picked chords to impassioned eruptions of tremolo-picked intensity in an eternal ebb and flow.Those flurries of passion are one of the other major reasons O Meadowlark is such a striking release in an overcrowded milieu: this is not a guitar album–this is an album in which an artist uses a guitar in an attempt to convey the beauty, sadness, and mystery of life in his own modest way.Every aspect of this release is rooted in a deep sincerity and a desire to make art that is human and meaningful and it shows.There are plenty of great guitarists in the world, but not many of them manage to turn their art into such an honest and direct self-portrait as this one.