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Wednesday, March 16, 2005
Songs To Aging Children Come
One of the more enduring images in rock/pop is that of the earnest songwriter, alone and unaccompanied on acoustic guitar or piano, serving up a tuneful confessional from the stage.
This isn't an altogether fair image; the singer/songwriter genre includes artists who approach the form from very different backgrounds and angles. Some come from a country tradition, others from folk. Some were carryovers from Tin Pan Alley, which was itself rendered obsolete when writing one's own material became the rule, rather than the exception.
The style originates with Bob Dylan, the original man-with-a-guitar of the rock era. Dylan's first 4 1/2 albums were exactly that; Dylan unaccompanied except by his own guitar and harmonica, singing his own compositions. While one would have to classify Dylan as a folk artist of the Woody Guthrie school, there'd be no singer/songwriter without him for a template.
The late 60's saw the first wave; Joni Mitchell is perhaps the most enduring example; James Taylor perhaps the most commercially successful over the long run. Randy Newman and Carole King were Tin Pan Alley types, John Denver the folkie-turned-country boy. Neil Young's Harvest album is essentially a singer/songwriter album. One could argue that Crosby Stills and Nash is nothing more than a trio of singer/songwriters. As the 70's wore on, Billy Joel (piano lounge) and Ricki Lee Jones (jazzy) became the epitome of the form. England had them too; Cat Stevens and Nick Drake are two prime examples.
Obviously, Randy Newman, John Denver, and Nick Drake are as about as different as three characters can be. But their chosen mode of expression minimalized these differences. What all singer/songwriters have in common is the emphasis on the song itself; not on its presentation or even the performance of it. Singer/songwriter albums are melodic affairs; they won't get you shaking your booty. While few singer/songwriters recorded many albums of pure, naked unaccompaniment, most favored spare, tasteful instrumentation. Those prone towards pop might sweeten the arrangement with strings (some to excess).
Depending on your own preferences, singer/songwriters are a pleasant, reliable diversion from the loud histrionics of rock or singer/songwriters are the anti-rock; unimaginative, unenergetic, uncool.
Regardless of where you stand on that issue, there is no denying that during the heyday for the singer/songwriter movement, which was roughly from 1969 through 1979, several key artists released some essential albums, Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark, Paul Simon's debut, Leonard Cohen's Songs of Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne's Late For The Sky, and Van Morrison's Moondance among them.
While many of these albums spun gold at the register as well, the singer/songwriter eventually fell out of style as the 1980's started. However, the simplicity of the style has assured that it will never become extinct. Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega were notable singer/songwriters of the 80's, and Jewel and Elliott Smith are a couple from the 90's. Even the indie labels traffic in the stuff: John Gorka and Bill Morrissey fit the profile well.
So: tonight, let's get mellow and laid back. Maybe it ain't rock, maybe it ain't hip, maybe it's what your fuddy duddy old parents listen to. It's still a part of history, and the best work stands the test of time.
I've created a random playlist from all titles in my library tagged as "singer/songwriter", a pool of 710 titles. First 10 titles randomly selected by Media Center are profiled; Jam Tags, 1-5 stars, follow.
1. Randy Newman: Sail Away *****
Randy Newman has been a controversial singer and songwriter right from the start. Frequently accused of being everything from a cynic to a misogynist to a redneck to a insensitive clod. He may well be all of those things, but he can be given credit for not shying away from difficult or uncomfortable subjects. Newman himself described this song as a commercial jingle for slave traders seeking to recruit Africans to board a ship for the New World. That alone some might find offensive; others will see it as subtle (or not so subtle) satire. The controversy stems from Newman's deadpan delivery. On this, and some of his other notoriously non-PC songs ("Short People" "Rednecks") he sings like he means it, and gives them catchy melodies. "Sail Away" is a gorgeous song; its lyrics are funny and cute. Then, you think about them, and they're not very funny at all.
2. James Taylor: Soldiers ***
From Taylor's Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, his follow-up to his big breakthough, Sweet Baby James. For all intents and purposes this is a retread of both the sound and the sentiments of the previous, and better, album. Taylor cashed in some of the despair that permeated that album for a somwhat more optimistic outlook, but beyond that we get songs about highways and men with stories to tell, and the like. "Soldiers" is a mere fragment of a song, clocking at 1:15. It's sweet and poignant, but unfinished.
3. Joni Mitchell: You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio
For The Roses was a big step forward for Mitchell. While she still sounds like a folkie here, with acoustic guitar and harmonica opening this tune, her vocals have taken on a very jazzy inflection, a direction she'd mine further with each subsequent release. Likewise, despite the standard singer/songwriter instrumentation, she's starting to play with odd time signatures, and getting exploratory with her rhythms. Oddly, she compares herself to a country radio station in the lyric, despite a rahter non-country arrangement. This was also her first hit as a performer (rather than songwriter), reaching #25 on the Billboard charts.
4. Carole King: Tapestry ***
Title song from King's most successful album, and one of the best selling albums of all time at its time of release. The album is remembered today for the well-known hits on it, including "It's Too Late" and "I Feel The Earth Move". "Tapestry", the song, isn't nearly as catchy as those, and suffers from an overearnest vocal recital that the ambitious but mawkish lyrics don't really merit. As far as singer/songwriter albums go, this is a pretty good one. But King never came close to matching it, and by the mid-70's the hits dried up completely. Get the whole album if you like this sort of thing; the song alone isn't much.
5. John Lennon: I Know (I Know) ***
Lennon was in a real rut when he recorded this in 1973. His marriage to Yoko was on the rocks (they'd split and eventually reconcile), he was coming off his worst album ever, the embarrassing agitprop Sometime In New York City, and had to face the fact that not only was Paul McCartney outselling him, Ringo Starr was too. Mind Games was a step in the right direction, but only a step. At its heart, it's a confessional album by a fairly unhappy and self-absorbed (at this point) songwriter, nearly drowned by the dense studio backing. This is one of the more tuneful moments, but it is utterly lightweight and forgettable.
6. Steve Forbert: Romeo's Tune ****
This is the only top-40 hit for Forbert, from his sophomore effort. An instantly catchy piano-based number, Forbert looked like he was going places with this release. As it turned out, by 1982 he was without a label, and while he has continued to work to this day, he's never managed more than a cult audience. Not having heard most of his ouvre, all I can surmise from this tune is that Forbert arrived too late on the scene to hit it big, and his somewhat light vocal ability lacks distinct character. Can't complain about this tune though; it's a good one.
7. Graham Nash: I Used To Be A King **
Among Crosby Stills, and Nash, Graham Nash was the one with the pop sense. As a member of the Hollies he sang, and sometimes wrote, some of the catchiest tunes of the mid-60's. Whatever talent he had as a popsmith was lost when he came to America; while he did supply CSN with some of their lighter and more tuneful moments in the early days, little of his solo work is going to get you whistling around the house. This song is a sprawling mess (much in the same way David Crosby's solo album is a sprawling mess), and the lyrics are smug and shallow. Stick with the trio, or even Crosby-Nash. This one is for completists only.
8. Al Stewart: Modern Times ***
Stewart has always been a little underrated as a songwriter and performer. At his best, he recalls a less dippy Donovan, with a British Isles folk sound he comes by honestly. This benefits from an excellent Alan Parsons production, and good, contemporary (for the time) instrumentation. His next couple of albums would yield hits, and this track is on par with those hits. He's far from being an essential performer, but he's likable, and singer/songwriter fans ought to check out his other mid-70's stuff, including hisbiggest hit, "Time Passages". Rock fans are steered to his 1970 Love Chronicles album, which has Jimmy Page playing lead on every track.
9. Jackson Browne: Boulevard ****
For most Browne fans, this album closes out his classic period, and is considered much inferior to his first three albums. Which indeed it is, although speaking as a non-fan, I've always kind of liked this one, his lone #1 album. Certainly this cut is a good one; instead of more personal drama, he actually writes about something here, and the session band has a good, rocking efficiency to them. It'd be pretty much downhill from here, although he'd hit the top-20 a couple of times in the 80's.
10. Paul Simon: American Tune *****
Simon's sophomore solo album doesn't reach the transcendent revelation his indispensible debut did, but it's fine on its own terms. "American Tune" is one of his most ambitious lyrics, an elegiac ode to American history that avoids getting too sentimental or schmaltzy. Even when he wrote lyrics that could be considered mildly "political" Simon seldom got explicit; preferring instead to question attitudes rather than challenge them. This lyric follows the pattern, but brings a world-weariness to the table that actually enhances the words. SImon and Garfunkel do this as a duo on The Concert In Central Park.