Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Roger McGuinn - Treasures From The Folk Den (2001)

Roger McGuinn is in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Byrds, one of the most famous and influential American bands of all time, so it isn't necessary to plow into his long musical history here. His legacy is why people will explore Treasures From the Folk Den, a traditional folk song CD that perfectly explores his pre-Byrds folk roots. Treasures is an all-star CD that sprang from a feature McGuinn ran on his official website in which he recorded an old traditional folk song each month, and posted it on the site, along with a complete history of the song and how each one came into his life.

To make this CD McGuinn traveled around the country to sing and record with the world's most famous folk artists in their homes. He sings with Joan Baez and Eliza Carthy on "Wagoner's Lad," he duets with Judy Collins on "John Riley," and on "Alabama Bound" he harmonizes with Pete Seeger. "John The Revelator" features Jean Ritchie and Odetta. Tommy Makem, Frank and Mary Hamilton, and Josh White Jr. are also featured on this 18-track disc. McGuinn plays his wonderful 12-string on "Dink's Song" while singing with both Seeger and White.

The excellently detailed booklet that comes with the CD gives the listener exactly what the website offered, complete lyrics and a story about each song. Everything is well sung, well played, and is truly a labor of McGuinn's love.

There is not a trace of rock 'n' roll, electric instruments, drums, or modern music anywhere. While I have never been an aficionado of traditional folk music, and I never will be, I have no problem loading Treasures from the Folk Den in my CD player because of the outstanding performances.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Saw Doctors - The Cure (2006)

The Saw Doctors first three studio releases were all cut from the same cloth. They were irreverent and often light-hearted, pub rock albums with vocals sung through an echo chamber effect that frequently made the lyrics difficult to understand. Too often the Docs sounded like a bar band trying to adjust to a big arena. Fortunately the lyric sheets that came with each CD helped a lot. The only time the echo effect caused a problem with lyric comprehension was on their compilation of singles, EPs, and oddities, Play It Again Sham! (2003), and that was because the disc didn't contain a lyric sheet. Then on their fourth and fifth studio albums, Songs From Sun Street (1998) and Villains (2002), the Docs went to a folk-rock sound, featuring more acoustic instruments and upfront vocals that were easier to understand. The difference in sound was more a result of the production style rather than in the songwriting, arranging, or attitude.

With the release of The Cure the bar band sound that made The Saw Doctors reputation has returned but thankfully they've ditched the echo chamber vocals. Lead singer Davy Carton's voice is nicely up front and center.

The Cure is typical Saw Doctors in a lot of ways but it is not an album that will win over many new fans. Their inventive often clever lyrics are still there but the melodies all tend toward sameness. It’s not a bad release, and completists will want to own it, but newcomers should start with their debut If This Is Rock N’ Roll, I Want My Old Job Back (1991) and All The Way From Tuam (1993).

Friday, September 08, 2006

Music's Greatest Generation, 1964 -1980

Reflecting back on the history of popular music I have come to the conclusion that not only was much of the best pop music of the world produced during the period from 1964 to about 1980 but that is also the era in which pop music was most revered. I contend that never before in history has music meant so much to a single generation. It is a phenomenon that may never happen again. Even allowing for the fact that this is the era I grew up in, and came of age in, (and therefore I may look upon it with both prejudice and some fondness) I still believe my thoughts are accurate. This premise is strictly based on my observations. I have no hard data.

During that decade and a half poets and literary types embraced popular music. Folk music became mainstream. Could Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Peter Paul & Mary get played on rock radio today? Radio embraced them all in the 60s. Jazz made the pop charts. Could Miles Davis be played on rock music stations today? He was then. Progressive rock was heavily influenced by classical music. There were many social commentary and political songs. The British invasion was the first and only time music from another country would dominate the American airwaves and sales charts. I could go on and on. This eclecticism contributed to music’s popularity during this era. Motown, Stax-Volt, Southern California country-rock and folk-rock, British prog-rock, good ol’ boy southern rock, and more, were all played on popular music radio together and they could all be enjoyed by the same listener.

It all began when The Beatles stormed the world beginning with their Ed Sullivan appearance in February of 1964 and this love of music continued until most of the artists who came of age in the 60s began to peter out. The end of the 70s and the dawn of the 80s saw the break up of Led Zeppelin, The Band, and The Who. Jon Anderson left Yes. Elvis left the building for good. John Lennon was assasinated. Lowell George died. There are lots of other examples, too many to mention. Punk and disco were taking over.

Why will a love of music that went beyond the norm be unlikely to happen again in future generations? There are a multitude of reasons. Here are a few.

1 - Computers And Video Games. Do you remember going to a friends dorm room or house and sitting around listening to and discussing music? Today the kids born of my generation will go over to their friend's house and play video games instead. They may listen to music but they have other interests.

During the era I'm speaking about music often was the reason friends got together. The music was the event. Listening was often so intense that friends would gather around the stereo just as families gathered around the TV. While today's kids may be listening they are probably more focused on other activities such as computer games. During the era I am talking about there were no PCs, VCRs, or DVDs. No one had heard the name Atari.

I had friends who would invite me over just to hear a new album they purchased. That is how I was introduced to Terry Kath's extended solo on Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4." Before that day the single version of the song was all I knew. I'll never forget it. Today that kid extending me the invitation would probably be asking me to come preview his new X-Box video game.

2 – Radio. Radio is too fragmented today. There was a time a top 40 station could play The Rolling Stones, followed by Frank Sinatra, followed by The Temptations, Neil Diamond, The Allman Brothers Band, Johnny Cash, The Four Seasons, and James Brown all in a row. We were exposed to a lot of different genres of music. That won’t happen today. Demographics now dictate that ratings aren't enough. Radio stations aim for a target audience. Therefore a station that plays Norah Jones most likely isn’t playing Radiohead too. If a station plays Michael Bolton they won't be playing Eminem.

3 – The Beatles. There is no icon like the Beatles today. Love them or hate them no single artist has ever taken over our culture like the four young men from Liverpool, England did. They not only influenced our music but all youth culture in general. The main reason men and boys of the mid-60s to about 1980 wore their hair longer is because of the Beatles. They also caused a lot of kids to take up music as a hobby.

4 – The Political Atmosphere. The Civil Rights Movement, Viet Nam, and Watergate combined to force a lot of people with something to say to find an acceptable outlet for expressing how they felt. A lot of this spilled over into the music of the day. It isn't a coincidence that this musical era started to decline after America settled down beginning with the age of Ronald Reagan.

5 - MTV. It's birth twenty-five years ago may have had more influence on the decline of this era than many realize. The popularity of music videos frequently made it impossible for the viewer/listener to separate the video images from the music. MTV helped spawn the Ashley and Jessica Simpson types who are everywhere today. Image and appearance seem to be more important than the music. Way too many musical acts of today are pre-packaged with both visuals and image in mind.

I am not stuck in my era. I'm not a music fan who dislikes everything that was recorded after I graduated from college. There is still an abundance of outstanding new music everywhere, there always will be, but to have a culture in which music permeates so much of our American society as it did in 1964, and have it last almost a generation, is not likely to happen again anytime soon.