Various Artists: Important The Garden of Forking Paths

[Important; 2008]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: free-folk, experimental folk
Others: James Blackshaw, Espers, L

The Garden of Forking Paths, curated by plucker James Blackshaw, shines the spotlight on the various abstractions within folk’s modern rebirth. In addition to a cut from Blackshaw himself, we’re treated to the transcendent sounds of Jozef van Wissem (Blackshaw’s musical partner in Brethren of the Free Spirit), Helena Espvall (of Espers), and Chieko Mori.

Each track serves the album’s powerful purpose, which is to display the prowess, versatility, and magnificence of the solo stringed instrument. Chieko Mori embodies Blackshaw’s mantra by bookending The Garden of Forking Paths with two distinctly different explorations. Album opener “Spiral Wave” is a gritty descent into folk’s netherworld -- to reference a well-known folk icon, imagine a Nick Drake LP switched to the slowest setting a Victrola will concede. Mori’s conclusion, “Tokyo Light,” is the polar opposite of “Spiral Wave,” visiting her Japanese roots with melodies and high-pitched instrumentation Westerners most associate with the land of the rising sun.

Espvall’s “Home of Shadows and Wirlwinds” lends The Garden an angular, experimental edge. It plays host to a screeching string section happily interrupting a minor concerto Mozart would have found mesmerizing. Jozef’s lute piece “The Mirror of Eternal Light” plays around with dramatic pauses and quiet space before blossoming into a richly textured pluck and pull.

If this disc does nothing more than introduce you to a few new sounds, then Blackshaw will be pleased to find his work was not in vain. The Garden of Forking Paths delivers 45-plus minutes of stringed zen, capable of making the coldest heart melt, the warmest soul freeze, and the strongest mind buckle. In a stretch of five tracks, The Garden of Forking Paths becomes the yin and yang of modern folk interpretation, and its lasting sounds are the new playbook, to be copied and mimicked for years to come.

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