Ed Askew Imperfiction

[Drag City; 2011]

Styles: folk, acid-folk, freak-folk, etc.
Others: Vashti Bunyan, Richard Wyatt, Bill Callahan, Daniel Johnston, The Mountain Goats, The Fiery Furnaces

For some reason, I can’t shake the notion that Ed Askew’s gentle collection of acid-folk songs, Imperfiction, demands a gentle review. While my head tells me I need to write a weighty analysis of the album’s “cultural significance” and “political relevance,” my heart tells me to tread lightly. Why so cautious? What’s so precious here? It’s clearly not just about the songs. Askew sings achingly of loneliness and love; his rough tenor voice breaks beautifully over his fretted tipple and simple harpsichord arrangements. But, in this, he’s no different from countless other nearly forgotten coffee house singers, trying to make a break in the world, walking a fine line between honesty and mawkishness. I also don’t think it’s because Askew’s an openly gay folksinger. Askew sings candidly and movingly about homosexual love, and while this may push the folk agenda in a surprising direction (exposing one of its major blind spots), it doesn’t necessarily make him a great songwriter, let alone an activist.

Maybe, then, I’m feeling a little generational respect. Askew is one of the last troubadours of my parents’ generation, a founding father, part of that freak-folk vanguard that gave birth to alternative music as we know it today. If I dismiss his recorded output (small as it was), I’d be calling my entire musical history into question. In fact, my restraint probably stems from the fact that Imperfiction was originally released independently in a small cassette run. Such a fragile tradition! I feel some need to protect this small gem, before it’s lost forever.

No doubt, there’s a lot of backstory here, and perhaps we need to clear some of it out of the way before we can get an honest assessment of the music. Askew graduated from Yale Art School in 1966, but he was hooked on the sounds of Harry Partch, John Cage, and Bob Dylan and soon signed up with a local band called Gandalf and the Motorpickle (no giggling, please). He kicked around with this misfit outfit for a while, playing coffee shops and church basements, but given his introspective songwriting and chosen band-busting instrument, the 10-string tipple, he soon set out on a solo career. In 1969, he signed with ESP-Disk’ (one of the great independent labels of the era) and recorded Ask the Unicorn, an album full of romantic love and anti-war sentiment, hailed today as both a “psychedelic masterpiece” and the “gay Astral Weeks.” A second, similar effort, Little Eyes, was recorded in 1970, but it languished at ESP until it was picked up in 2007 by De Stijl. Askew spent the 70s working as a house painter and developed carpel tunnel syndrome; with a music grant, he gratefully added the wrist-friendly harpsichord to his repertoire. In 1984, he gathered up all his songs from the last decade and recorded Imperfiction, which garnered little notice until it was picked up this year by Drag City. Indeed, given the resurgence of Vashti Bunyan, the rediscovery of Daniel Johnston, and the rise of American freak-folk in general, Askew’s been hailed as a “troubadour” and an “outsider,” and seems to have finally found his niche. These days, he’s recording constantly, using keyboards and Pro Tools to compose songs that kinda sound like the songs he recorded in the 1960s — “childlike,” “innocent,” and “naïve,” as the critics claim. Nothing’s changed, musically, but given the twists and turns of the business, Askew’s career seems to be taking off again.

But what about the songs? Do they live up to the myth? Imperfiction finds Askew in a more domestic mode. His voice certainly seems more relaxed. Whereas he uses a high tenor bleat on his earlier, more urgent albums, his singing here seems more intimate, more mellifluous, perfect for the album’s small tales of love and woe. He’s also tempered his tipple, hitting it lightly, breaking up the chords into gentle fingerpicking patterns. Also, more songs here feature the harpsichord, which Askew plays with a lazy-day improvisatory feel. The lyrics mostly focus on everyday wonders; Askew seems to have stripped away the cosmic poetry of his earlier efforts, opting instead to give voice to the ecstasy of seemingly mundane and inconsequential encounters. For the most part, he sounds less like a Dylan or a Donovan and more like Frank O’Hara, depicting a world both tedious and wondrous. “A Boy With The Hat” neatly contrasts his anticipation of a lover’s return with his disinterest in a television news report about bombings in Beirut. “Hitchhiking” provides a minimalist odyssey across the States; there’s really nothing to be found or learned on the trek, just the simple joys of gold lights on pavement and the silver mirror of a lake.

Other songs take a more meditative, nearly runic form, pushing the folk sound in a decisively abstract direction. “Tom” consists of only one line about a chance encounter with a man on the bridge; Askew repeats it over and over while banging out the same melody on the harpsichord. “Buddha Smiles” starts off like a Cageian experiment in randomness and then falls into a serialist pattern; the simple lyric — Jesus, loves us. Buddha smiles, yes, yes. — proves at once mystical and mystically ironic. In fact, these later songs often seem both primitive and modern, forcing us to rethink some of the most common features of the 1960s sound. Listening to Imperfiction, one is reminded of bands as diverse as The Mountain Goats (the bleating vocals, the bruised lyricism, the stark bedroom arrangements) and The Fiery Furnaces (the playful repetitiveness, the ironic picaresque narrative, the melodic doubling of voice and guitar). Its richness seems to depend as much on immediacy as it does on its weird abstraction and aesthetic detachment, its ability to pattern the air with more or less meaningless sounds and take pleasure in sonic experience for its own sake.

But still there’s that nagging feeling of preciousness, of forced naiveté. Askew’s music often undercuts its own progressiveness, demanding — like a lot of celebrated “outsider art” — to be taken solely for its simplicity. In “At Home in the Factory,” for example, Askew presents himself as a blissful innocent, gently playing his harpsichord in the face of “international insanity.” “So I’m sitting here at my harpsichord,” he sings, “writing some words, playing some chords… What can you do in a crazy world? Write another song, sing it well. La la la…”The song is not without beauty, but it reminds me of Schiller’s famous account of the naiveté we find in plants, animals, landscapes, children, and country folk. According to Schiller, we look to naïve people and things with both smugness and wistfulness, contrasting their presumed artlessness with our own jaded artfulness: “We love in them,” he writes, “the quietly working life, the calm effects… existence under its own laws, the inner necessity, the eternal unity with itself.” If I have these feelings towards Askew’s music, they must imply a real dissatisfaction, a genuine protest against my own world and its terms. Yet, at the same time, I feel some need to reject the music itself, insofar as it plays on my sentiments in such cheap and obvious ways. At the very least, Askew’s music raises this dilemma clearly, which, to me, seems the dilemma of any genuine folk music in our time. In this alone, perhaps, the reissue seems justified, but that doesn’t mean the songs stand on their own as vital or even very urgent.

Links: Ed Askew - Drag City

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