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Witness for the persecution

Bill Fay is not a name likely to elicit more than a flicker of recognition today and, truth be told, he wasn't much more popular when his two albums Bill Fay and Time of the Last Persecution were first released in 1970 and 1971. Psychedelia fans may recognise his 1967 single "Screams in the Ears/Some Good Advice" (here tacked onto the self-titled one), but with the albums long out of print (and changing hands for big bucks on eBay), the chances of a Bill Fay revival seemed pretty remote.

A ray of hope shone when excellent UK label See For Miles reissued the two albums on a single disc in 1999 - but then See For Miles went bust. That reissue, however, caught the attention of US alt-rock producer/musician Jim O'Rourke, who duly played them to Wilco, with whom he was working at the time. Jeff Tweedy and co started namechecking Fay, even covering the gorgeous "Be Not So Fearful" in the I Am Trying to Break Your Heart doco; and his influence could clearly be heard in their subsequent album, A Ghost Is Born.

All of which has led to another UK reissue label (Eclectic) remastering and re-releasing the albums. And what a find they are for fans of richly textured, dark, singer-songwriter fare. Although the cover sticker proclaims Fay to be the "missing link between Nick Drake, Ray Davies and Bob Dylan", it is only with Drake that he seems to share common ground, and even then only on the self-titled debut, richly scored as it is for strings, brass and woodwind.

Indeed, although on the cover Fay looks to be walking on water, for much of the debut he appears to be drowning in the huge swell of music built around his humble and austere songs. This is not to say that it is not a fine album - there is certainly much to recommend it, from the dark swoop of "Garden Song" and the fabulously titled "The Sun Is Bored" through to "Be Not So Fearful" - merely that it is very much a product of its era.

The portentously titled Time of the Last Persecution is an entirely different proposition. On the cover, Fay resembles none other than Charles Manson - heavily bearded and with long hair, a world of experience separating him from the dapper young singer-songwriter on the cover of the debut, making people wonder whether some terrible personal apocalypse (drugs? mental illness?) had caused such a striking transformation.

The songs, too, had become heavier, darker and more troubled. They were recorded in a day with Ray Russell (who also produced) and a rhythm section that had never heard them before. Russell's playing on this album is nothing short of extraordinary - from the delicate acoustic solo in "Tell It Like It Is" and the countrified licks adorning "I Hear You Calling" to the piercing howls that punctuate "Laughing Man" and "Til the Christ Come Back".

Indeed, the band's intuitive, small-ensemble sound evokes a gathering storm - heavy weather approaching fast. One commentator suggested that Fay appeared "torn between saying everything was going to be all right and imparting some terrible truth", and Fay himself concurs with this description.

Whatever its genesis, this is clearly his masterwork, comparable to the finest work of some far more celebrated artists. More than 30 years on from their release, Fay's songs continue to hold a strange resonance, gentle grace and alluring power.

As for the suggestion that some sort of breakdown prevented him from making a third album, it now appears that he merely returned to the day jobs, including teaching and being a park warden - he felt that, rather than giving up on the music industry, it had given up on him. How ironic, then, that interest in Fay's work is now at an all-time high, with David Michael's (nee Tibet, of Current 93) Durtro Jnana label recently releasing the unfinished third album Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow (as the Bill Fay Group), and hipster US indie Drag City offering him a new deal.

BILL FAY and TIME OF THE LAST PERSECUTION, Bill Fay (Eclectic/Jayrem).