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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1537

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Jonatha Brooke: The Works
by George Graham

(Bad Dog Records 60808 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/8/2008)

Just about every guitar-strumming singer-songwriter on the music scene owes his or her existence to one man: Woody Guthrie. The great American folksinger, troubadour, rambler and political activist, Woody Guthrie from the 1930s through into the 1960s set the pattern for all who would follow. Some were contemporaries and colleagues like Pete Seeger and the Weavers, and others like Bob Dylan, and Woody's own son Arlo Guthrie, would follow closely in his footsteps. And Dylan himself became the archetype for the contemporary singer-songwriter.

Woody Guthrie was both a folksinger -- doing traditional songs, and a remarkably prolific writer, often using traditional tunes to frame his own lyrics, be they labor songs, songs about life in the American Dust Bowl days, to children's songs. Everybody knows Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land, and dozens of his songs have become the folk music standards especially back in the mid-1960s folk boom.

Guthrie, it turns out, was a more prolific writer than many realized. Usually traveling around with a typewriter as well as a guitar, Guthrie created hundreds of sets of lyrics and poems that he may not have actually set to a song. Over the years, members of the Guthrie family, including Woody's daughter Nora, collected them into the Woody Guthrie Archive, which opened in 1996. Ten years ago, the Guthrie family invited British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, whose own musical tendencies run toward Guthrie's, and the band Wilco, to create music for some of the unpublished lyrics. The result was a CD called Mermaid Avenue, which was nominated for a Grammy award in the contemporary folk category.

More recently, Nora Guthrie invited another contemporary singer-songwriter, Jonatha Brooke, who is hardly in the Woody Guthrie style, into the archive to write music for a couple of sets of lyrics for a benefit concert for the archive. Ms. Brooke took the songs in a very different direction than the guitar-strumming style, based on simple traditional folk songs, that was Woody Guthrie's trademark. Nora Guthrie was sufficiently impressed that she invited Ms. Brooke back into the archive, and the result is an album of ten previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics set in an almost jazzy, sometimes vaguely funky setting, with some blue chip musicians, almost all of whom are from a jazz background. It's called The Works, and the result is a quite fascinating album.

Ms. Brooke found herself quite enchanted by the lyrics, which are very different from familiar Guthrie writing. Ms. Brooke was taken by several sets of lyrics written from a female perspective, often quite emotional. There are quite a few love song lyrics that embody fairly complex moods. Ms. Brooke points out a number of the songs were written toward the end of Guthrie's life when he was suffering the effects of the Huntington's disease which ultimately killed him. They can look at mortality in indirect, allegorical ways. So Ms. Brooke's sophisticated musical settings, are an excellent fit, even though they are miles from Guthrie's own style.

Ms. Brooke is joined by some of the best in the business, keyboard man Joe Sample, of the Crusaders, who also worked with Joni Mitchell in the 1970s; jazz bassist extraordinaire Christian McBride; drummer Steve Gadd known for his work with Paul Simon, plus Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, Hiram Bullock on electric guitar and some backing vocal contributions from Keb' Mo', Eric Bazilian of the Hooters, and Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket.

The CD opens with a track which is immediately fascinating, especially for those who thought they knew Woody Guthrie. The lyrics of My Sweet and Bitter Bowl have the flavor of some kind of British Isles ballad, while Ms. Brooke's music has a breezy jazzy feeling, propelled by the great acoustic bass work of Christian McBride. Jazz accordionist Gil Goldstein makes an appearance which adds a further dash of eclecticism. <<>>

You'd Ought to Be Satisfied Now is another rather complicated love song, though the lyrics, seem more in keeping with Guthrie's style. The musical backing, however, is vaguely funky. <<>>

If you didn't think that Woody Guthrie could come up with a contemporary pop song, this CD provides a great example, thanks to Ms. Brooke's music and her associates. All You Gotta Do Is Touch Is Me, is given a kind of Memphis soul flavor. The track also features the guest appearance by Keb' Mo'. <<>>

There is one song whose lyrics are just the sort of thing you might expect from Woody Guthrie. Madonna on the Curb is the story of a homeless mother with child. <<>>

For me one of the most intriguing sets of lyrics comes on My Battle, which sounds as if came out the period of Guthrie's deteriorating health and consideration of his mortality. The lyrical imagery is quite fascinating. As usual Ms. Brooke and company add a tasteful musical setting, in this case a slightly country-flavored waltz. <<>>

Guthrie almost always performed his songs in a solo acoustic guitar setting. There is one song on The Works that is delivered that way. Sweetest Angel is a love song, or it could be a lullaby. Ms. Brooke is joined by Glen Phillips on the other vocal. <<>>

There are two songs that were written entirely by Ms. Brooke. Both fit well into the direction of the CD. The better of the two is Taste of Danger which fairly typical of Ms. Brooke's admirable style. <<>>

The CD closes with another quite fascinating track, King of My Love. The Woody Guthrie lyrics were written from a woman's perspective, and seem quite unlike the style one associates with the rambling labor-song agitator. It's an poetic, allegorical love song, with a couple of twists. Ms. Brooke turns it into a very attractive waltz. <<>>

I think that one of the best words to describe Jonatha Brooke's new CD The Works is "intriguing." It's a superbly tasteful album in the sophisticated contemporary singer-songwriter style for which Ms. Brooke is known. But the fact that ten of the twelve songs have lyrics by the great folksinger Woody Guthrie makes it a source of great fascination, not only for the lyrics, which were not previously heard, and which will be quite surprising to many a Woody Guthrie fan, but for the way Ms. Brooke sets them into music a long way from Guthrie's style, but which seems wonderfully compatible. Listening to this album, I try to imagine Guthrie's twangy voice and strumming acoustic guitar performing these songs to some old folk melodies. But many of these lyrics are so unlike what we would expect from Guthrie, that it's not easy. So far as is known, Woody Guthrie never set these lyrics to music, so Ms Brooke's music has become the definitive versions. There might be some died-in-the-wool traditional Woody Guthrie folk music fans who might demur, but I think the result is absolutely wonderful. And that is no doubt helped by a band of some of the very best players on the planet.

Our grade for sound quality is a B-plus. There's good clarity and a nice mix, but the recording is overly compressed. That unfortunately is nothing new in this day and age of bad audio. But it's depressing to hear everything on this subtle album at almost exactly the same volume all the time.

Jonatha Brooke has been distinguishing herself since the late 1980s when she was a member of The Story, and a great songwriter then. Now on The Works setting previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics to music, she has hit another career high.

(c) Copyright 2008 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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