Quietly but quickly, New York City's Tompkins Square label is amassing a formidable catalog of outsider music. They've taken their time but it's been worth every glorious minute. They've reissued long-gone yet seminal works such as Robbie Basho's Venus in Cancer and Harry Taussig's 1965 private-press album Fate Is Only Once, as well as the incredible multiple-disc box set of vintage 78 and field recordings called People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Songs of Disaster 1913-1938, in a killer package with an introduction by Tom Waits. In addition to reissues -- there are sets by brilliant and celebrated but widely under-the-radar jazz visionaries such as guitar wizard Bern Nix (best known for his work with Ornette Coleman's Prime Time), pianist Ran Blake, and saxophonist Charles Gayle. Mostly, however, Tompkins Square has become the Takoma Records of the 21st century, issuing album after album from lesser known but legendary visionaries such as Peter Walker, Charlie Louvin, and Spencer Moore to name just three. Finally, the imprint has begun an aggressive campaign of documenting and reissuing rare recordings -- and new ones -- by younger players whose names are whispered about in awe in the underground communities where limited-edition CD and vinyl works are de rigeur; namely those by multi-instrumentalist Shawn David McMillen and guitarist James Blackshaw. The latter has been a bit of a coup: Tompkins Square has introduced the British musician's work to American ears by releasing his brilliant Cloud of Unknowing in 2007 and reissuing his catalog.
One of the great linchpins in the Tompkin's Square approach to introducing its artists to hipsters everywhere (as well as fans of great acoustic music) is its Imaginational Anthems series. This slipcase box contains the first three volumes in the series, released between 2005 and 2008. Assembled and annotated by label boss Josh Rosenthal, these volumes are as wonderfully and carefully assembled as any of the early Takoma samplers. He puts these beautiful slabs together in such a way that the listener is transported aurally and "imaginationally" into a world where time ceases to exist, and sound is simply the reach of space itself. No dimensions, it's all around you, through you, and over you. Volume one contained works by Jack Rose, Taussig, the late Sandy Bull, John Fahey, Nix, Max Ochs, Kaki King, Gyan and Terry Riley (yes, that Terry Riley), Suni McGrath, and others. It is a startling, surprising collection of very rare and seminal tracks by fabled legends of yore, unknowns musical alchemists and, in King's case, a young visionary, but it the disc holds together beautifully, casting its spell over the listener profoundly and completely. The second installment in the series brought us lauded latecomers like Jose Gonzalez, Blackshaw, and Christina Carter, and placed that music in the context of its architects: Basho, Brit folk iconoclast Michael Chapman, Peter Lang, Rose, Sharron Kraus, and more. It's a stunner in its labyrinthine construction and Rosenthal's selections are poignant and precise.
Finally, the third volume in the series that concludes this box -- keep an eye out, there will be more -- is a wild selection of the near mythical. There are cuts by underground five-string banjoist George Stavis, guitarist Mark Fossom, and Richard Crandell (whose recordings are coming back into print after decades hidden from view) as well as players that are either well known or should be, such as Basho disciple Steffen Basho-Junghans, McMillen, R. Keenan Lawler (a monster resonator guitar picker), Matt Baldwin, Cian Nugent (no relation to Terrible Ted), Ben Reynolds, and Greg Davis, to name a few. Simply put, these are all essential recordings, they offer solid evidence of how the tradition continues from the '60s to the present day in the same way that albums by Fahey, Kottke, Crandell, Lang, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, and countless others picked up on the lineages of the previous decades from folk, blues, prison songs and mountain and church music foundations, and brought it forth, shifted and changed and added and subtracted. This box is the latest entry in the long long logbook. Get it.