Just last week, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings – the label that tirelessly documents “the people’s music” and houses the catalogues of 20 legendary labels – released the latest batch of vinyl reissues that have been excavated from the vaults and issued on quality vinyl from the original master tapes. Previous volumes include albums by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Cotten, Lucinda Williams, Dave Van Ronk, and many more. The newest batch digs even deeper to unearth gems spanning new age music, avant garde classical, musique concrete (complete with animal sounds), and even tunes that bridge the gap between folk, jazz, rock, and performance art.
First up is Craig Kupka’s Crystals: New Music for Relaxation 2, a celestial soundtrack for meditation about ten years ahead of its time. Far removed from the panflute-filled new age cliché that the genre became, this 1982 album features a pair of side-long compositions for synthesizer and trombones that were field tested and approved in Craig and wife Nancy’s relaxation courses. The unlikely instrumental pairing is otherworldly and oddly beautiful. Just drop the needle on cut one, “Trombones of Lithia” and the listener is transported to a place where 20 minutes floats by in a breeze. Where “Trombones of Lithia” is drone-based, “Crystals” begins with a melodic theme on synthesizer that gets twisted, modulated, and turned around over the course of the side. The album, it’s promised, provides “healing music that opens the outer reaches of the mind,” and couldn’t we all use some escape from our current situation?
Where Craig Kupka built an unusual musical landscape with unlikely instrumental pairings, on Gateway Summer Sound electronic composer Ann McMillan charts a similar goal using found sound examples of animal calls. McMillan also utilizes gongs, bells, and harpsichord to tie together her sonic worlds defined by magnetic tape experiments. The result is equal parts captivating, unsettling, and somehow musical in all its surrealism. It’s a fascinating look into the boundary-pushing work that McMillan and her colleagues Princeton-Columbia Electronic Music Center undertook during the ’70s, expanding the parameters of musical compositions to include more than just conventional notes on a staff. And more broadly, it’s an endlessly strange reminder of the natural inclination toward music that connects species across the planet.
The final in the trio of otherworldly vinyl offerings from Folkways is The Neptune Collection by The Entourage Music and Theater Ensemble. Exploring the intersections of music, dance, poetry, and theatre, Entourage expanded on their collective’s mission statement with this sophomore album. Entourage offers disjointed guitar pieces tied together with eerie bells and flute, expansive piano compositions, quaint folk, bluesy freakouts, and gorgeous jazzy ensemble works. It’s all held together with memorable melodies that wouldn’t be out of place with much of the progressive rock that landed on shelves (and found its way to more listeners) in 1976.
Now’s your chance to explore these gems of the rich, wide-reaching Smithsonian Folkways catalogue in what’s sure to be their best presentation yet. Each album has been newly remastered from the original master tapes, pressed on quality vinyl, and packaged in the iconic tip-on Folkways sleeves complete with reprints of liner notes inserts that provide context to all the other-worldly sounds you’ll hear. You can purchase these albums separately or bundled together in a Smithsonian Folkways-exclusive package with a branded turntable slipmat. The titles are available now wherever fine music is sold, including in brick-and-mortar shops that could use your help during these uncertain times. You can find order links and track listings below!
Craig Kupka, Crystals: New Music for Relaxation 2 (originally Folkways Records LP FX-6196, 1982 — reissued Smithsonian Folkways Recordings LP FW06196, 2020) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada / Your Local Record Shop)
- Trombones of Lithia
Ann McMillan, Gateway Summer Sound: Abstracted Animal and Other Sounds (originally Folkways Records LP FTS-33451, 1979 — reissued Smithsonian Folkways Recordings LP FW33451, 2020) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada / Your Local Record Shop)
- Amber ’75
- Gateway Summer Sound
- Gong Song
The Entourage Music & Theater Ensemble, The Neptune Collection (originally Folkways Records LP FTS-33870 — reissued Smithsonian Folkways Recordings LP FW33870, 2020) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada / Your Local Record Shop)
- Neptune Rising
- Druid Dance
- Euphoric Bells
- King’s Birdcage
- Nature Spirits
- Incantation for the Death of Self
- Space Needle Suicide
- Tar Box Poltergeist