The Graham Weekly Album Review #1151

CD graphic various artists: Bleeker Street: Greenwich Village in the 60's
by George Graham

(Astor Place 4012 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/19/99)

The singer-songwriters genre is experiencing a strong revival, judging from the number of albums being released. While good albums in the style hardly ever get to the top of the pop charts, the "folkies" of the 1990s are nevertheless proliferating, with some truly outstanding artists making music at the close of the millennium.

The style, of course, can be traced back to the 1960s, when a combination of idealism, the arrival of the Baby Boomers to the age when they were starting to make artistic contributions, along with the generally heady and turbulent times, provided the perfect atmosphere for a significant development in music to take place. Folk music up to that point had been the collection and performance of traditional songs, possibly changing them slightly as they were passed on. While people like Woody Guthrie wrote songs that chronicled his age, up until the early to mid 1960s, it was considered something of a sacrilege for a folk singer to do anything but songs handed down through the generations. But in New York City around the traditionally Bohemian area of Greenwich Village a number of performers took it upon themselves to make their own music. Most significant among them was Bob Dylan, whose first album was of traditional songs. But in 1963, Dylan released an album of original music, combining the activist poet with the musical setting of the folksinger. While the purists were not amused, the Greenwich Village scene quickly became a hotbed of young folksingers who created their own music, and in ironically, in the tradition of those who came before them, set out to make statements with their music, everything from political commentary, and so-called protest songs, to introspective thoughts on love. Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin, Leonard Cohen, Tom Rush, Eric Anderson and many others came through the scene and became the models for all the singer-songwriters who followed from James Taylor to Suzanne Vega to today's up-and-coming artists like Ani DiFranco.

While many of the performers from that era remain active, most have moved beyond their early work. But with so many fine singer-songwriters around who owe their musical roots to the Greenwich Village scene of the 1960s, and with that scene fading in further into memory, and many of the original recordings no longer available, it seems an appropriate time to re-examine and celebrate the music that arose there. That is the premise of a new various-artists anthology called Bleeker Street: Greenwich Village in the 60's. The CD is a collection of 16 classic songs by some of the most influential songwriters of that era, performed by 17 different contemporary singer-songwriters. The result is a worthwhile album that provides a reminder of the remarkably high quality work that came out of that period, in arrangements that for the most part follow the originals.

The album was put together by one Peter Gallway, and produced and arranged by Steuart Smith and Stewart Lerman. Unlike many recent anthology and tribute albums, this is not a disparate collection of individually-recorded tracks by the respective artists. Instead, the backing musicians were fairly constant, with Smith playing most of the guitars and several other instruments. On most of the tracks, the guest artists simply provided their vocal interpretation of the songs to Smith and Lerman's arrangements. That gives the album a more unified sound. But the producers also tried to pattern the arrangements after the original recordings, which ends up not adding much in terms of taking the songs in new directions. With many of the original recordings no longer available, I suppose this serves a historical purpose, especially for those who are new to the scene, but for those who fondly remember the golden days of Sixties folk and still have the original records, the result is not as exciting as might be expected.

Producers Smith and Lerman did come up with very good choices of vocalists to perform the songs, all significant singer-songwriters in their own right, including such current luminaries as John Gorka, Jonatha Brooke, Marshall Crenshaw, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, and even someone who was once called "the next Dylan," in the early 1970s, Loudon Wainwright III. They also assembled an excellent collection of songs representing the scene, with compositions by Dylan, Ochs, Paxton, Andersen, Cohen, Hardin and even Tim Buckley. And the matching of the songs to the singers is also quite good.

Listening to this collection allows us to re-examine the songs of that period, and in fact develop a new appreciation for them: in the folk tradition, they were generally musically simple, but lyrically, they were the best of poetry, with even the protest songs being gentle and allegorical. There was almost always a kind of detachment and poetically indirect quality to the language that made the songs more profound. And while a few artists are creating work of this quality these days, they are few and far between.

The album appropriately begins with the song Bleeker Street, which was recorded by Simon & Garfunkel on one of their early albums, but was in fact written by one Jerry Landis. The singer is Jonatha Brooke, formerly of the group The Story. The arrangement has the introspective quality of the original. Brooke and the gathered musicians, including former Pat Metheny bassist Mark Egan, do a very tasteful job. <<>>

Though Bob Dylan wrote My Back Pages, the Byrds probably had a bigger hit with it. Marshall Crenshaw's performance of the song follows the Byrds example. In fact, Crenshaw has always sounded uncannily like Byrds founder Roger McGuinn. As the CD's voluminous liner notes point out, the song was written by Dylan as a kind of reaction to his own self-righteous music, and this album gives us a chance to reconsider the song, and its musical and historical context. Again, the result is quite tasteful, doing justice to the composition. <<>>

A song by one of the more distinctive and perhaps peripheral figures to come out of the scene, the late Tim Buckley, comprises the track performed by Chrissie Hynde. The producers generally chose vocalists of the same gender as the composers, but Buckley's Morning Glory is a cryptic piece that is well performed by Hynde. Indeed her low alto voice in some ways resembles Buckley's distinctive tenor. <<>>

While most of the arrangements on this CD are reminiscent of the originals, one track that provides a pleasant departure is Pack Up Your Sorrows written by Richard Fariña, and first recorded in a somewhat country-influenced style. The performance here is by Loudon Wainwright and country-bluegrass diva Iris DeMent. Wainwright gets out a banjo and gives it a bit of a bluegrass touch. <<>> Perhaps because Wainwright is one of only two performers on this anthology to go back almost to the original days, he had more courage to take liberty with the song. Most of the other, younger artists, seemed to approach the album and arrangements with a degree of reverence.

But sometimes too many liberties are taken with the songs. Patty Larkin does a good vocal performance on Fred Neill's classic Everybody's Talkin' which became a bit of a hit for Harry Nilsson in the late 1960s, but the hip-hop-influenced rhythm in this arrangement does not do the song any good. <<>>

With a similar invocation of drum loops is the Leonard Cohen song So Long, Marianne, sung by another of the more venerable artists on this collection, former Velvet Underground member John Cale, who is joined by Suzanne Vega doing the backing vocals. Cale is a good choice for this typically lugubrious Cohen song, and the arrangement turns out to work reasonably well. <<>>

The most straight-out folk arrangement on the album is Cry Cry Cry's performance of Tom Paxton's masterpiece Last Thing on My Mind. The trio of Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell provides good old-fashioned Peter, Paul and Mary-styled vocal harmonies, while the all-acoustic instrumentation adds further authenticity. <<>>

One of today's most gifted singer-songwriters, John Gorka, performs Eric Andersen's song Thirsty Boots, written in the days of the civil rights marches. Gorka does well, but the rather unremarkable instrumental arrangement keeps this from being a highlight of the album. <<>>

Perhaps the most clever selection of artists on this anthology is the punk-influenced group Larry Kirwan and Black 47 doing the late Phil Ochs' prototypical Vietnam War protest song I Ain't Marchin' Anymore. Kirwan fairly spits out the lyrics with the kind of energy that Ochs' would probably greatly enjoy. There are also some incongruous wind instruments in the arrangement, like a soprano sax that hints at Klezmer music, to further add to the pastiche. <<>>

On the new CD Bleeker Street: Greenwich Village in the 60's, producers and arrangers Steuart Smith and Stewart Lerman have created a worthwhile new collection of classic songs from the heart of the scene that was the foundation for the generations of singer-songwriters who followed, as performed by some of those very same artists who took their inspiration from that period. Since a fair number of the original recordings of these songs are out of print, the album provides a good historical overview for those who may have missed it the first time around. But because most of the arrangements, and even the vocal styles, follow the originals, the album in the end does not really contribute all that much to the art. And since Smith and Lerman provided the arrangements for all the tracks, there is more homogeneity than one might expect in an anthology of such diverse artists, which may or may not be a good thing. With only a couple of exceptions, however, the arrangements are quite tasteful.

In terms of sound quality, the album is a disappointment. The mix has good clarity and there is a decent coherence in the sound of all the diverse vocalists, but the album has a heavily-compressed in-your-face sound that is totally inappropriate for this kind of music. The processing is excessive to the point that you can hear the vocals affect the volume of the backing instrumentation as the compression pushes everything to maximum level, and that destroys the dynamics of the performances and the acoustic quality of the instrumentation. The CD hardly sounds any better on a good system than on a cheap one.

Despite its mediocre sound, fans of folk music ranging from those whose memory goes back to the formative days, to those discovering it through people like Ani DiFranco and Beck, will find a good deal to enjoy in the performances on Bleeker Street: Greenwich Village in the 60's. It's both a reminder of the exceptional songwriting that came out of that period, and a chance for contemporary artists to pay tribute to some of their inspirations.

(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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