Monday, December 3, 2012

Vashti Bunyan - Lookaftering

                Folk music was booming in various places around the world in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, reaching a high peak in its popularity amongst countries such as America and the United Kingdom. With albums such as Songs of Leonard Cohen by Leonard Cohen, Blue by Joni Mitchell, Pink Moon by Nick Drake, and Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel, the genre of folk and folk rock was gaining the attention of a wide audience of listeners, who reveled in the scene and made it clear that this time period of music (and its associated artists) would go down in musical history. One key feature that all artists from this time period had in common: they were all extremely prolific and (relatively) consistent in their album releases. This is not the case, however, for one artist in particular, who only released one album in these glory years of folk music: that artist is Vashti Bunyan 

Vashti is an English artist who, after the poor sales of her debut album Just Another Diamond Day, gave up her musical career for a long period of time. The name Vashti Bunyan is not a name that comes to mind for many when they typically think of great folk artists, and for a valid reason; with the release of only one album (that initially was not at all popular), one could hardly be considered a member of the prominent folk scene. However, it is said that some artists are remembered more fondly after they have died (or in this case, after their musical careers have seemingly died), and when Vashti’s debut album was re-released in 2000, it gained a newfound appreciation and following, with new listeners starting to catch on to what others had missed in 1970: fantastic musicianship and composition, and a stunningly heartfelt simplicity and sincerity meshed together with an overwhelmingly beautiful voice. With this success of the re-release, Vashti’s musical career was reborn in her newly found inspiration and confidence, as she went on to release her grossly underrated folk masterpiece, 2005’s Lookaftering.

                Lookaftering is, at face value, a seemingly simple and traditional female-lead folk album; a strong effort, yet nothing too special. However, at its heart, the album is filled with subtle nuances that add layers onto the complexity and beauty of the album, revealing an album that is able to stand at levels of other folk classics in musical ability and prominence. Lookaftering is able to combine elements of traditional guitar- or piano-driven folk with beautifully arranged baroque-style folk instrumentation and a nostalgic pastoral feeling. There are distinct similarities between the musical arrangements of Vashti and folk artist Joanna Newsom, in that both Newsom and Vashti make use of a multitude of baroque instruments such as oboes, horns, and clarinets (Newsom even contributed to Lookaftering via her harp playing). “Turning Backs” is an excellent example of this “medieval”-like sound that the album can produce at times, as a gentle oboe whisks the listener away into a pastoral landscape of a serene valley, or some other natural landscape.

                The entirety of the album also has a very peaceful yet melancholy feel to it, reminiscent of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon in its morose tonality and expressiveness. As heard on Pink Moon, Drake’s simple and minimal acoustic-guitar lead approach can be heard throughout parts of Lookaftering, such as in “Wayward”, which has the same gentle yet downhearted sound that Drake is famous for. Nick Drake and the aforementioned Joanna Newsom are not the only artists that are brought to mind when listening to Vashti, however; all throughout the album, one cannot help but notice that Vashti sounds familiarly similar to folk legend Joni Mitchell in voice alone. Although the voices themselves are similar, the way in which Vashti expresses her voice is quite unique from that of Mitchell. Vashti’s voice is much more warbly, airy, and subtle in comparison to Mitchell’s much stronger and more distinguished vocal qualities. Despite these seeming differences and seeming downfalls, Vashti’s vocals (paradoxically) contrasts quite nicely with her pretty and dreamy instrumental arrangements, creating a layer of unique beauty of their very own.

                Despite becoming a bit of a cult classic in recent times, Vashti’s debut release and its long-awaited follow-up Lookaftering, still fail to garnish much attention from the popular media or the public at large. Whether because folk music hasn’t seen a large booming surge in recent times like it experienced at the turn of the 1970’s, or for other advertising/commercial purposes, the delicate genius of Vashti Bunyan remains relatively elusive from most. Any that appreciate classic (and even contemporary) folk music should, however, become well-versed in Vashti’s works. Lookaftering is the innocent-sounding, seemingly simple yet exquisitely arranged album that portrays an idyllic country life while simultaneously making the listener downtrodden and gloomy in a beautiful, earthly sort of way. Fans of folk should have this album somewhere in their repertoire, and even the occasional fan of the genre can get equal amounts of enjoyment out of this underappreciated album.

-Richard Cory

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