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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1450

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John Gorka: Writing in the Margins
by George Graham

(Red House 194 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/12/2006)

They say that time passes quickly when you're having fun, and for those of us who are fans of the so-called New Folk scene, it perhaps comes as a surprise to the realize that the scene that emerged in the mid 1980s with people like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman is now about two decades old. At the time, a new generation of performers emerged, building on the work of the singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s, but taking the music in a new and distinct direction. One of the brightest lights among the now increasingly venerable New Folkies is John Gorka, whose has just released a his tenth CD, called Writing in the Margins.

John Gorka is a New Jersey native, who began playing music at an early age, but it was at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, that he began to get serious about it. Though his majors were philosophy and history, music increasingly became his calling. Together with another currently notable singer-songwriter Richard Shindell, and Russ Rentler, who was recently on our Homegrown Music series, Gorka was part of a group called the Razzy Dazzy Spasm band. Not far from campus in Bethlehem was a recently opened folk club or "listening room" as they call it, the Godfrey Daniels, which became Gorka's home away from home, and for a while his home in fact, living in the club's basement. He was the resident soundman and emcee as many of folk world's leading performers passed through. Eventually, Gorka developed the courage to sing some of his own songs, as he would sometimes serve as the opening act for the entertainment there. His reputation began to grow, and he hooked up with notable folk music figure Jack Hardy, who had founded Fast Folk Musical magazine, and who still holds his famous regular workshops for up-and-coming artists. Those sessions have been a crucible though which some of the best-known new folk figures have passed, like Suzanne Vega, Lyle Lovett.

It was 19 years ago when Gorka's first LP was released. Called I Know, it immediately established him as one of the people to watch on the scene, with his warm voice and remarkable songwriting that ranged from the humorous to the poignant. His songs especially attracted accolades among his peers, with Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter eventually covering some of his songs. He recorded five albums for the Windham Hill/High Street label, which further increased his visibility, though in 1998, he returned to his original label, the Minnesota-based Red House Records. Gorka is currently based in Minnesota.

His new release is perhaps a bit more lyrically low-keyed than some of his previous recordings, with songs that seem a bit more settled in their outlook, and the humor is a lot more subtle. As a family man with two small children, that perspective seems to enter into the complexion of the songs, though not often literally. Something a bit different on this CD is the inclusion of two cover songs by respected and deceased songwriters, Townes Van Zandt and Stan Rogers.

The CD features a regular band, with electric guitarist Dirk Freymuth, drummer J.T. Bates, bassist Joel Sayles and keyboard man Jeff Victor. There are some guest musicians, including appearances by fellow singer-songwriters Lucy Kaplansky, Nanci Griffith and Anne Peacock doing backing vocals. Gorka has had some unexpected commercial success with a video on country music cable channels, so there's a bit more country on this CD.

But most of the recording is in the contemporary singer-songwriter mode, such as the opening piece called Chance of Rain, a somewhat philosophical song which could be interpreted in a number of ways. It's interesting in its stylistic contrast between the verse and chorus sections. <<>>

A lovesong with a twist is Satellites, which is ostensibly about regretting cutting off an affair. Lucy Kaplansky sits in doing the backing vocals. <<>>

The title song Writing in the Margins, is written from the perspective of a soldier away at war, sending a letter to his significant other and reflecting on their situation. <<>>

The first of the two cover songs is Townes Van Zandt's Snow Don't Fall, featuring Nanci Griffith on the backing vocals. It's another love song about two people now separated. One could interpret the song as being an elegy for a departed lover. <<>>

An interesting track that contrasts an upbeat musical setting with somewhat downcast lyrics is Bluer State. But underlying the song is a bit of optimism or at least hope. <<>>

As fine as John Gorka's songwriting is, probably the best composition on the album is the late Stan Rogers' The Lockkeeper, which has the nautical setting that has been a part of many of Rogers' songs. <<>>

Gorka's composition I Miss Everyone is definitely given the country treatment. One wonders whether this song was meant as tongue-in-cheek, and if so, whether a potential country audience for the song would take it that way. The song did leave me scratching my head. <<>>

Gorka's liner notes are sparse in this CD, but one song that did get an explanation is When You Sing, which is dedicated to blues and Gospel singer Mavis Staples. They met at a festival, and Gorka said to Ms. Staples "When you sing, you make the world a better place," and after thanking him, she said "That sounds like a song." So Gorka was inspired write one. The small band is joined by a horn section and backing vocalist Kathleen Johnson, for one of the most upbeat tracks on the CD, both musically and lyrically. <<>>

Gorka does make some social commentary on the song Road of Good Intentions, which is done in what I suppose could be called the classic John Gorka style, reminiscent the sound of his earlier work. There is a guest appearance by bassist Michael Manring. It's another of the album's highlights. <<>>

On his new CD Writing in the Margins, John Gorka reminds us of why he is considered one of the best on the contemporary singer-songwriter scene. Almost two decades after his debut recording, he has made a new collection of songs that while perhaps not quite as immediately memorable as his early work, still has all the great qualities in both composition and performance. His songs are usually subtle and do reveal something new each time you listen. The band and added guest backing vocalists perform tastefully, and never get in the way of the songs. Kudos to producer Rob Genadek, who also engineered and mixed the recording. We give him a grade A for the sound quality with both acoustic and electric instruments captured well. And the recording has a decent dynamic range, something that is quite rare these days.

While I might recommend for the uninitiated some of John Gorka's earlier recordings as representing his very best work, Writing in the Margins is a great way to get to know this outstanding artist, And his long-time fans will not be disappointed by this worthy new release.

(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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