mon 24/06/2024

Reissue CDs Weekly: Judy Henske & Jerry Yester | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Judy Henske & Jerry Yester

Reissue CDs Weekly: Judy Henske & Jerry Yester

The mystical 'Farewell Aldebaran' gets its first-ever legal reissue

Judy Henske & Jerry Yester contemplate estrangement and safe harboursOmnivore Recordings

In 1969, a tranche of American musicians looked back to the country’s past for inspiration. Bob Dylan followed John Wesley Harding with Nashville Skyline. The Band’s eponymous second album hit the shops. The Flying Burrito Brothers debuted with The Gilded Palace of Sin. The rootsy was a default. But choosing to draw on country and Appalachian traditions did not have to mean playing it straight.

On the amazing Farewell Aldebaren, Judy Henske and Jerry Yester used banjo and hammered dulcimer. They also employed the Chamberlain, a Mellotron-like instrument where the keyboard triggers tape playback, and the Moog synthesiser. The album’s feet were in the past and the future.

Farewell Aldebaren has been hard to find and its reappearance is a cause for celebration. It has been bootlegged a couple of times but this new legal reissue marks its first ease of availability since 1969. The album was originally issued by the ironically named Straight, a label run by Frank Zappa and his manager Herb Cohen. Others on the roster included Tim Buckley, the early, freaky Alice Cooper and Captain Beefheart. They had another label, Bizarre. Straight was meant to showcase their relatively mainstream artists. Nothing on either label would assault the charts.

Judy Henske & Jerry Yester Farewell AldebaranJudy Henske and Jerry Yester were married and had moved from Greenwich Village to the San Fernando Valley, outside Los Angeles, in early 1968. The album was recorded a year later. Each was embedded in the music business and had pasts suggesting their first album together could be folk- or roots-inclined. But nothing suggested they would come up with anything as far-out, mystical and wonderful as Farewell Aldebaran.

Yester had been in pop-folkies The New Christy Minstrels and The Modern Folk Quartet. Both were significant hothouses: Chip Douglas and Henry Diltz were also in the latter while, at varying points, Kim Carnes, Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn and Barry McGuire were in the former. Yester went on the produce his brother’s band The Association and Tim Buckley’s Goodbye & Hello and Happy Sad. He had a short spell in The Lovin’ Spoonful and issued two solo singles in 1967. The pointers to Farewell Aldebaran were the baroque, expansive arrangements of Goodbye & Hello, the 1967 solo B-side “Ashes Have Turned” which he co-wrote with Henske (she also sang on it) and the same year’s remarkable A-side “I Can Live Without You”. Each of the solo tracks was identifiably a form of folk-rock, but the melodic sensibility – following each section of melody with another to build crescendos – was indebted to Gregorian chant and plainsong.

Judy Henske's solo albums hop-scotched through blues, folk, show tunes and even soul

Henske had been a fixture on the American folk-blues scene since the late 1950s and issued her first album in 1963. She had released four before Farewell Aldebaran and was not-yet a songwriter. Her voice was big, powerful and instantly identifiable. Yet each album hop-scotched through blues, folk, show tunes and even soul. It now feels as though there was little idea of how to consistently frame her voice.

When the couple set out to make their album, the lyrical well they drew on was Henske’s. She had written an extraordinary group of literate song-poems setting oblique commentary on their life and her past against evocations of the fate of a fallen knight, a mare’s connection with the man who had stolen her, and the biography of a ship named Charity which yearned for a safe harbour. The album climaxed with a disquisition on estrangement inspired by questioning what it would be like if the giant star Aldebaren dominated the entire sky.

While clearly of their moment, once the rough-edged opening blues stomp “Snowblind” was out of the way, the intense, spiritual results of the collaboration suggested the medieval as well as the roots of America’s music.Henske's musical setting was finally right. Despite being issued in France, Germany and the UK as well as America, the monumental and timeless Farewell Aldebaran (produced by Yester with the Spoonful’s Zal Yanovsky) barely sold. It is impossible to know how many people were paying attention in 1969, but the line between this instant cult item and the 4AD label's slant on goth in the 1980s is clear.

The reissue of this essential album supplements the original 10 tracks with previously unheard instrumental demos of five of the songs. In the liner notes, it is described as ending on a note of “seething cosmic oblivion”. To this, Yester says, “We were very up about doing the album. There was no darkness as far as we were concerned.” Nonetheless, the timeless, unique Farewell Aldebaran is imbued with dark magic.

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