José Medeles’s Railroad Cadences & Melancholic Anthems

cover art for Railroad Cadences & Melancholic AnthemsIt’s great to know that there’s still so much great music coming out of Portland, Oregon. This one is as eclectic and as Portland as they come, matching up three excellent and quite different Portland guitarists with a Portland drummer in a series of improvised duets in tribute to the legendary late guitarist John Fahey, who himself spent his last years in Oregon.

José Medeles is best known as drummer for The Breeders, but these days he’s revered as owner of the Revival Drum Shop in Portland. The guitarists he scooped up into this project are M. Ward, Marisa Anderson, and Chris Funk. Marisa Anderson is a composer and multi-instrument player who’s best known as a boundary-pushing guitarist in the folk and blues realm. Chris Funk of course is best known as guitarist with The Decemberists and Black Prairie, but he’s also a producer and prolific performer in many other acts, and can apparently play just about any musical instrument from saxophone to theremin.

M. Ward has had a prolific solo career since about 1999, and I’ve been reviewing his recordings here since about 2003’s Transfiguration of Vincent – that album title of course being a reference to Fahey’s highly influential Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. Ward has only two of the 11 on this project, but I love them both. He rather surprises me on the second one, “Something Else.” This one sounds like a post-modern take on an old Civil War era ballad, or perhaps a fin de siecle parlor song as played by a Delta blues guitarist on a hungover Sunday morning. I can usually pick out M. Ward’s guitar playing within a couple of bars, because I’ve been listening to him for more than 20 years now. It is immediately apparent that Ward was playing on the first single “Richness of Peace” because it couldn’t be anyone but. However, this one is, well, something else. The tuning is different, it may be a different guitar than he normally uses, and the usual kinds of patterns he picks have been subverted, inverted, or something. So if asked to pick this one out of a lineup, I might not get it for a while. Jake Xerxes Fussell trying to sound like M. Ward? Either way, this long track is hypnotic in the way of the best Fahey songs, and the interplay between Ward and Medeles is as intuitive as any track on this record.

Ward’s “Richness of Peace” is a much more dreamlike affair, Ward’s picking and ambience immediately recognizable, Medeles swinging out a languid waltz cadence on kick drum and brushed snare well forward in the mix. It came with a lovely video that features a lonely fellow walking along the banks of the Columbia and other Portland locales, filmed by Rachel Blumberg, the portland artist, filmmaker and musician who played drums on Ward’s recordings and tours for many years.

Anderson’s sprightly fingerpicked folk tune “Please Send To J.F.” kicks off the album. Whereas “Richness of Peace” aptly fits the second half of the album’s title (“Melancholic Anthems”), this one definitely fits the first half with its definite “railroad cadence.” “Inspiration for the name came from a thought of finding an old battered cassette tape and a possible final wish that simply read ‘Please Send to J.F.,’ ” Medeles says. The video, also helmed by Blumberg (as is the more abstract video for Funk’s “Golden“) is a lovely montage of home videos from the ’50s.

Funk is probably best known for his muscular slide guitar style, and he leans hard on it here. The aforementioned “Golden” is one of the most overtly Fahey-esque, Funk dissonantly sliding his way through a bluesy meditation on a deep toned resonator as Medeles plays a pretty straightforward tattoo on brushed snare with forceful kickdrum punctuations. Medeles’s cymbal washes and deep toms highlight Funk’s short and abstract slide number “Juxtaposition.” Things get even more abstract on “Illumination,” Medeles playing a cadence that kind of combines hip-hop and parade ground, with a bit of electronic beep-beep going on. I don’t know if it’s the case but Funk, again on a resonator, seems to be the one improvising here around Medeles’s beat. This one would be right at home with the desert-inspired drone of SUSS or Gral Brothers.

Anderson plays with a lot of variety and her ideas and execution never disappoint. “The Paper Snake” is a trance-inducing Delta blues meditation, driven calmly but relentlessly by her fingerpicking and Medeles’s steady kick drum and use of his full kit. A fiercely driven bout of arpeggiated fingerpicking in the first half of “Before & After” abruptly shifts to a languid wandering, Medeles applying a slight bit of electronica to his rattling snare. The equally languid but more conventionally tuned “Mid The Snow & Ice” reminds me of early Calexico, the warm guitar tones juxtaposed against ambient electronics and minimalist percussion.

The album wraps with two very overt homages to Fahey. First, Anderson’s “Takoma,” named for Fahey’s record lael, which was named for his hometown of Takoma Park, Md. It’s one of the most upbeat tunes in terms of tempo, and really showcases Anderson’s gift for intricate picking. About midway through the tune’s seven-minute run Anderson pulls it back and Medeles follows, abandoning his joyful pummeling for atmospheric rattles, taps and thumps. I’d love to see a performance video of this one! The closer “Voice Of The Turtle” is a brief meditation on slide guitar by Funk and cymbal washes by Medeles, interspersed with samples of Fahey speaking about his admiration for Robert Johnson, and the way Fahey himself entered “a very light trance” when he played.

Anyone who enjoys guitar, blues, Americana, improvisation, trance music … hell, just great, engaging acoustic music, should check out Railroad Cadences & Melancholic Anthems. It’s a joy and a delight.

(Jealous Butcher Records, 2022)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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