BY STEVEN ROSEN
What we want most in our music are those moments when the artists “go there” – leave behind the conventions of rock or pop or punk or whatever their genre is and head off for some place new and uncharted. “Into the Mystic,” as Van Morrison put it – after he went there and returned on 1969’s Astral Weeks.
It’s a 1960s concept fueled by exposure to drone music, gospel and soul, rock-guitar feedback and dissonance, free jazz, Eastern religions and – last but not least – psychedelic drugs.
Lonnie Holley got there from visual art. Since the late 1970s, the now-62-year Holley, an African-American from Birmingham, has been making what is called “outsider” folk art – work for which he didn’t train and which uses unusual, everyday materials.
He’s become celebrated for his work, and in 2012 released an album of similarly organic and seemingly improvised studio recordings, Just Before Music. Keeping a Record of It consists of seven more of those recordings – made between 2006 and 2011 – and includes some unobtrusive help from Black Lips’ Cole Alexander, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox and visual artists Lillian Blades.
While the droning, trance-like music with its open-tuned string instruments and bell-like keyboards is engulfed in mystery – you wonder whether it required Holley to enter an altered ecstatic state to retrieve these songs – it also has impassioned lyrical lucidity. “From the Other Side of the Pulpit,” for instance, the 13+-minute centerpiece, features Holley growling and bemoaning, “I’m on the other side/Watching the earthquake and tsunamis/Watching the economy/take all the money away from you and me.”
The album opens with the yearningly introspective and cosmic “Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants,” a title worthy of Sun Ra that is gently propelled by the electric keyboard. While this song has a sweetness to it as a result of Holley’s intimate vocals, it also has an ominous quality with lyrics like “six space shuttles the size of the Hindenburg and Titanic both put together.” It’s a song to play repeatedly, both to understand its vision and appreciate and its beauty.
Talking in the short “Making a Joyful Noise,” Holley tells folks in the studio his mission in making music and art is related to surviving a car accident at age seven after being unconscious for 3½ months. “The only thing I’m saying here is we’re making a joyful noise to people that don’t suppose to by dying yet.”
One can only say “Amen” to that – as well as to this revelatory album.
DOWNLOAD: “From the Other Side of the Pulpit.”