Near the end of this last summer, I found myself on an adventure in rural Vermont. After a lovely weekend in the countryside, I laid myself down in a little attic in a wood cabin sauna, just a few candles fading and the patter of rain above my head to lull me to sleep. It was the kind of rustic cabin I could have pictured Henry David Thoreau living in, huddled over a desk and writing studiously. It was even beside a small New England pond, probably not all that dissimilar to his own Walden. Earlier in the evening, I had been told that the troubadour, composer, and luthier B’ee had once lived in this cabin for a short while early in the new millennium. This seemed like a perfect fit for the man behind In Gowan Ring, a fellow I had heard much tell of over the years, whose musical history is (unlikely though the connection might seem) tied up with Blood Axis, Fire + Ice, and other neofolk stalwarts. Swatting away a few intrusive pond mosquitoes, I settled onto a small mattress, put in some ear-buds, and decided this was the perfect moment give a deep listen to In Gowan Ring’s new album of cover songs, Visions of Shadows that Shine. As the summer’s heat slowly drained from the wood around me, the cabin cooled enough to permit me casually drifting towards sleep.
In the last few years, B’ee (also known as B’eirth, born Bobin Jon Michael Eirth to a Mormon family somewhere in rural America), ever the wanderer, moved back to Germany from America. He resurrected the name In Gowan Ring from a thirteen-year slumber between full-length albums with this transition and 2015’s The Serpent and the Dove. The creative years between the 2002 masterpiece, Hazel Steps Through a Weathered Home, and the present were filled with albums released under the name Birch Book. This found B’ee stripping back the medieval psychedelic sounds and focusing on a more direct and Americana-tinged approach to folk song rather than the meanderings that characterized his earlier output.
The influence of the Birch Book years has definitely seeped into this new incarnation of In Gowan Ring, as the band has never fully returned to the uniquely gentle bombast of earlier days. Rather, The Serpent and the Dove, and now Visions of Shadows that Shine, represent a pleasing synthesis of the two eras.
Visions of Shadows that Shine was released suddenly, with little lead up or fanfare, near the end of last summer by Lune Music, B’ee’s own label. Cover albums can be tricky business; often, songs don’t feel like they belong together, are too similar to the original, or are much too different. However, in this case, B’ee chose songs that complemented his natural style so well that I didn’t even realize Visions of Shadows that Shine was a cover album until seeing some of his posts on Facebook crediting the songwriters.
The first track on the album is protest singer Phil Ochs’s ‘Changes’ (a song also covered by Gordon Lightfoot on his 1966 debut album, a little fact that makes my Canadiana-loving heart swell), here split into two separate parts which bookend the album. The first words B’ee intones are, ‘Sit by my side, come as close as the air.’ This serves as a wonderful summary for the production and mood of the album to follow. The guitars and voice are produced as intimately as I’ve heard on a modern folk album, as if the listener is sitting in the room with the minstrel. Soft flutes and sparse percussion often fill any empty space and the overdubbed vocal harmonies are totally unobtrusive. Some fuzzed-out, psychedelic wah guitar makes an appearance on ‘Garden of Love’, but is never abrasive. The overall word that comes to mind concerning the album’s atmosphere is ‘simple’, but this is not meant in any derogatory way. Rather, it is the simplicity of the rustic cabin I slept in while first listening to the record. The function is fulfilled with any extremities peeled back. Only that which is necessary is present.
Obviously, the Beatles’s ‘Across the Universe’ is inarguably the most well-known choice to be given the In Gowan Ring treatment. Perhaps controversially, I actually enjoy B’ee’s version much more than the original (blasphemous, perhaps, but I was never much of a ‘Fab-Four’ fanatic in the first place, though I’m also no detractor). The lush choral effect when he sings the sacred word ‘OM’ is perfectly executed and carries the listener to a very ethereal place. B’ee made a great choice in including many more obscure tracks, his treatments of contemporary musicians like Stone Breath’s ‘Vision of the Face in the Well’ and the aforementioned (though sadly departed) Ochs song has already led me to look more into both of those artists.
Back in Vermont, I awoke in the cabin at daybreak, feeling refreshed and stirred. Though it was time for me to start my long journey across the continent towards home on the opposite coast, I feel as though I gleaned a lot from my short stay in that cabin. Among other, more personal things, perhaps I caught a small trace in the air of the sort of thing that inspires rare men like B’ee to live the way they do, and give us such beautiful sounds along the way.
01) Changes I – Phil Ochs
02) Vision of the Face in the Well – Stone Breath (Timothy Renner)
03) Piped Piper – Brian O’Reilly (Loudest Whisper)
04) Blessings of the Day – Rod McKuen
05) Across the Universe – The Beatles
06) Attics of My Life – The Grateful Dead
07) The River – Deva Madhuro
08) Garden of Love – Adrian Freedman
09) Changes II – Phil Ochs