Many solo projects don't hold a candle to the artist's main endeavors. Some, though, end up far surpassing anything their main project has done. Kevin Barker is the guitarist of Aden, a band that never did much for me. When I first heard his solo project, Currituck County, and his debut "Unpacking My Library," I was convinced it wasn't the same guy. But it was, and thus began my love affair with Currituck County. His new album, "Ghost Man on First," continues along a similar path, but trumps the debut in execution and vision.
You can get a good idea of what to expect on "Ghost Man on First" just by reading the song titles. Most notably: "Requiem for John Fahey" & "Dedication: Fred Neil." Both artists played similar styles of music and Currituck County follows in those footsteps.
Indian influences pop up on this album multiple times. The record features a first rate cover of Jansch's "Silly Woman." It features a sitar-like guitar sound underneath the more basic acoustic guitar picking. Vocally, Barker does this track brilliantly. At the forefront are his high-pitched vocals, hanging above like the bright sun. They're the most obvious, but it's the baritone, droning vocals mimicing its higher-pitched counterpart that makes this drip in Calcutta sweat. Add in tabla-like percussion, and its authenticity is undeniable.
This is not the only cover song, though. Nina Simone's "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair" is reworked into the fantastic "A Raga Called Nina." I never thought I'd hear this song done this way. It's truly Fahey-esque. Barker uses nothing more than acoustic guitar and his voice to turn this song into an almost-traditional Indian raga. Extended solos show his talent as a guitar player and help lull the listener into a trance-like state. The track is over nine minutes long, which might seem a bit excessive, but it works. Without pushing the 10-minute mark, it would never get into the proper groove needed to have such a meditative quality. I never felt like the song dragged; I was entirely too hypnotized by his voice.
As a person who loves acoustic guitar music, this album is perfect. Through most of its 43 minutes, I either feel like I'm relaxing in a bright green grass field in the rural United States or braving the scorching heat of the Indian subcontinent. Rarely has an album with such simple instrumentation evoked so much imagery. It's a testament to Barker and his playing ability. "The Tropics of Cancer" is a drive through Alabama in an old 1950s convertible. Wind blows in your hair; life seems perfect. With nothing more than an acoustic guitar, Barker creates a world long forgotten and ignored. While the guitar playing is intricate and complex, the mood is simple and the effect is stunning. This is one of my favorite tracks for sure.
There is one notable exception to all this, and that's loud and abrasive "The March of the People Who Do Not Know You." It almost seems out of place, but listening all the way through, it fits. I like the fact that there's nothing on the album remotely close to sounding like this. It works because it shouldn't work, if that makes sense. It's like opposites attracting - it seems stupid but often works out. It's as if Barker saw the comparisons and folk labels coming and decided to thwart them with a big, fat middle finger.
Now, we should take a moment and remember how amazing and great John Fahey was. Considering my love for all things Fahey, it shouldn't be a surprise how fond I am of "Requiem for John Fahey." I get a sense of urgency from this song, like it's trying to get somewhere before anyone realizes it?s there. It makes sense, though. The ambience of the track suggests that it's trying to ascend with Fahey's ghost. This has more of Barker's droning, but with a decidedly folk feel to it. Minimal, light tabla playing sounds like the pitter-patter of rain on a tin roof while his voice floats, soaked in reverb. It's a beautiful and fitting tribute to one of the all-time greats. Fahey is smiling somewhere.
After listening to this album so many times, I think I'll have to give Aden a second chance. I have a hard time believing that someone could be involved in a record this wonderful and be in such a mediocre band. Either way, I'll sing the praises of Currituck County for years. "Ghost Man on First" is an experience like few others. From Calcutta to Carolina and finally ascending to the heavens, Kevin Barker is a true talent. If the ghosts of John Fahey and Fred Neil haunt you, you have no excuse to not own this record. 8/10 -- Brad Rose (25 May, 2005)