Tag Archives: Folk

[163] Martin Carthy with Dave Swarbrick – Byker Hill

27 May

Sometimes, no matter how many times you listen to an album, it makes absolutely no impression.


That’s what has happened to me here, with the pretty period instrumentation and the admittedly accomplished vocals passing me by entirely despite a dozen and more plays.  I start up Spotify, I hear the first notes, and some time later I realize that the album has ended and once again I have failed to notice.

This has happened on occasion with bands I love where, on revisiting an album years later, I discover what it was I had missed – P.H.U.Q. by The Wildhearts was a complete bust for me when it first came out but recently revealed as a minor masterpiece.

Of course there are other albums which were a disappointment on first listen that have not fared any better with age.  I’m looking at you, Subhuman Race by Skid Row, although a better example might be GnR’s Chinese Democracy which left me with this same *shrug* feeling (rather than the disgust which led to Subhuman Race being the first and to date only album I have ever returned to the store for being terrible . . .)

So why am I reaching back twenty-plus years to discus hard rock near hits and clean misses in this post?  Is it possible that I have almost literally (in the original literal sense of the word) nothing to say about Byker Hill?

In the immortal words of the narrator from Hong Kong Phooey, “Could be.”

I would bet on the Chinese Democracy scenario being closer to the likely truth than P.H.U.Q. this time.  Except that I really can’t foresee a future where I even remember the name Martin Carthy long enough to give this record another spin.

What’s next?

Next Week: Cartolo – Cartolo

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 163 = 7%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 163 = 13%)
Recommend? No. (136 of 163 = 83%)

[151] The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man

4 Mar

I came pretty close to upsetting a lot of people when I began organizing my thoughts on this inarguably seminal album.


I love the Dylan-penned title track which opens the recording, and was excited to hear the rest, only to find the first few plays leaving me utterly cold.  I’ve heard it all before without seemingly ever having heard these particular songs.

So, I took a step back, playing other beloved Byrds singles – including the magnificent “Eight Miles High” and the moving version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” – and I’m wondering what it is I’m missing, why it is Mr. Tambourine Man that gets such an emphatic nod while these “better” songs are left out.

I’m just not getting the love.

The high points of the album initially feel like little more than a tease – in the close harmonies and jingle jangle guitars I’m hearing mid-career Beatles and wondering why I shouldn’t just go back and listen to A Hard Day’s Night or Rubber Soul.

But then something happens.

A couple of the tracks which had previously just flowed past me without any affect began to leave an impression, and it was a childhood in England that offered the band a way into my head and heart.

It turns out I have heard some of these songs before, just never like this.

At first unrecognized by my ear, suddenly I am singing along with the playground chant “Bells of Rhymney” all grown up in its psychedelic splendor.  Soon after, I realize that this may be my favorite version of the wartime standard, “We’ll Meet Again.”

And I find myself reevaluating my every listen to this album to date.

Heard on its own merits, unencumbered by expectations and comparison, Mr. Tambourine Man is a fun and breezy ride, full of new Dylan lyrics and old folk favorites.  Once I recalibrate my ear to the Folk end of the spectrum, from my anticipated Rock assumptions, the acclaim becomes so much more understandable, the music so much more enjoyable.

And I get to remain friends with those few people who are still with me after failing to recommend Pet Sounds and Heartbreaker . . .

Next Week:  David Byrne and Brian Eno – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 151 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 151 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (126 of 151 = 83%)

[142] Tim Buckley – Dream Letter: Live in London, 1968

25 Dec

At the crossroads of Folk and Rock, Tim Buckley uses his voice more as instrument than lyric delivery system.


In this long and winding live recording, Buckley whines and wails in unfettered and unapologetic sweeps, showing astounding vocal range and control.  It is quite fascinating to hear the things he makes his voice do.

Unfortunately – despite its unique character, its originality and style – I find that this aspect of the album quickly fades into the background, along with the rest of the music.  As impressive as the tone and talent on display from all on hand may be, I find myself constantly tuning out.

Nothing here holds my attention once the novelty of Buckley’s voice falls to familiarity.

It is a shame, because I really want to enjoy this.  There is certainly nothing wrong, nothing I dislike to be heard.  But it seems odd to recommend a recording as indispensable when I consistently forget all about it even while it is playing.

It is, I fear, perhaps a reflection of the songwriting aesthetic that it is only when a snippet cover of the hugely familiar “You Keep Me Hanging On” reaches my ears that I notice there is music on at all . . .

Maybe the studio albums are tighter, more engaging than Dream Letter.  But it is far more likely that in walking such a tightrope between Folk and Rock, Buckley has watered down both, served neither.

Which makes me sad.

Next Week: Buckwheat Zydeco – Buckwheat’s Zydeco Party

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 142 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (20 of 142 = 14%)
Recommend? No. (117 of 142 = 82%)

[112] Dock Boggs – His Folkways Years 1963-68

29 May

This appears to be a case of more important than impressive.


Although in truth I can’t figure out quite why this unassuming folk singer is seen as especially important either, unless you count his comeback from a 40-year hiatus.

His vocals aren’t as exuberant as The Balfa Brothers’.  His banjo picking isn’t as artful as Pete Seeger’s.  So I can’t think of a single reason why I would listen to Boggs over either one of the aforementioned.  Boggs’ music is pleasant enough – basic banjo picking under an old-man voice – but I struggle to find a single thing that elevates it in any way to the levels of the other recordings explored to date.

It is evocative, but harmless, toothless.  Music to eat to in a certain kind of Southern cooking restaurant.  Despite listening to 50 songs, almost two-and-a-half hours worth of music and more than once, I can’t pick out a single standout track, or indeed differentiate one from another at all!

I am frankly at a loss to understand how such a bland entry even made it into the discussion for inclusion into Tom Moon’s hallowed 1,000.  This is not the case of me not enjoying something that is challenging, or rejecting a sound that is simply not to my tastes.

It is just that I am left feeling nothing at all.

If any readers would like to enlighten me – to explain why they love this artist, these songs – I would be genuinely interested to hear what it might be I am missing.

Next Week:  Bonnie “Prince” Billy – I See A Darkness

Owned before blogging? No. (10 of 112 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? No. (17 of 112 = 15%)
Recommend? No. (92 of 112 = 82%)

[80] Peter Bellamy – The Transports

17 Oct

This true tale of an opera, performed in traditional English folk style, is a surprising treat, full of melodies both lively and haunting, as well as powerful and timeless storytelling.

Peter Bellamy and Friends

Peter Bellamy and Friends

The plot – a two young people convicted in 1787 of petty crimes and sentenced to be transported to Australia – turns out to have been a shrewd choice for a gathering of Folk performers and still has relevance in today’s climate of debate over wealth inequality.

The Transports opens with an overture which is worth the price of admission all on its own, period instruments expertly sketching out every theme that follows over the next hour or so.  When Bellamy joins in on the opening ballad it is almost jarring, though I am quickly engaged by the story unfolding, beginning with unflinching look at poverty that is “Us Poor Fellows”.

The overture does a truly wonderful job of paving the way for the melodies to follow, so that the themes already have an air of familiarity when they are heard in full for the first time, but I am not sure that I have ever heard anything quite like this.

Here is a modern folk take on the old folk form, falling neatly into neither.  The tunes are endlessly unexpected, the orchestral arrangements have a stark simplicity and the singers, while not always having the most impressive instruments, each find a tone and pitch that fully embodies the character they play.

The result is somehow mesmerizing.

While the whole flows along quite effortlessly at times, there are a number of interludes which stand out. June Tabor’s rendition of “The Leaves In The Woodland” could almost have a life as a folk standard, and the a capella duet, “Sweet Loving Sunset” is simply beautiful, but it is the haunting and powerful exploration of the nature of freedom, “I Once Was In Service”, which has stayed with me for weeks.

Once more Tom Moon is highlighting a piece that would never, ever have come to my attention without his list, for which once more I am grateful.

Next Week:  Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister

Owned before blogging? No. (9 of 80 = 11%)
Heard before blogging? No. (12 of 80 = 15%)
Recommend? Yes. (65 of 80 = 81%)

[45] The Balfa Brothers – Play Traditional Cajun Music

14 Feb

I do love that distinctive fiddle sound that kicks off this album.  It reminds me of all of the country singers I enjoyed in the 90s – like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Garth Brooks – that tried to pay their respect to their Cajun trailblazing forerunners.

The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music

The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music











Even in French, the songs have a familiar and welcome feel, full of exuberance and lively fun.  The twin fiddles ensure that there isn’t a static moment, and the makeshift percussion instruments lend an immediate spontaneity to the sound that makes you want to move.

There is a carnival, merry-go-round feel to many of the songs lending an old-timey vibe that is still somehow far from obsolete.  Each track is short, most not reaching the 3 minute mark and some not even lasting 2 minutes, meaning no particular tune wears out its welcome.

With the switch from the As to the Bs, I also made the switch from purchasing physical CDs (and records), to streaming almost everything through Sonos and Spotify.  The change has been a positive one for both my pocket and the portability of my collection, but this is the first time since the switch that I am missing the physical album, and for one reason only.

I would love to take a look at these liner notes.  They apparently include a history of the band as well as all of the lyrics in both French and English, and I think that this would even further enhance my enjoyment of these tunes.

The wailing vocals are undeniably alien – at times it reminds me more of the African vocals I have come across in the list than the country music of my teens and twenties – but are all the more interesting for this.  It is possible to hear the true traditional Cajun sound that apparently has been homogenized in the Cajun revival of the 70s and beyond.

I am struck yet again – as I listen to these reels on repeat while I work away at my computer – by the huge range and scope of the music I am encountering thanks to this endeavor.  Once more, here is a band, a genre, a sound I would never have sought out and enjoyed but for running across Tom Moon’s book almost exactly one year ago.

So thank you, Park Slope Book Fair.  And thank you, Tom Moon.

Owned before blogging? No. (2 of 45. 4%)
Heard before blogging? No. (4 of 45. 10%)
Recommend? Yes. (37 of 45. 82%)

Next week: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters – Singin’ and Swingin’ with . . .

[42] Joan Baez – Joan Baez

24 Jan

With her high clean voice, classic folk guitar picking, and story songs Joan Baez should be a slam dunk for me.  She was even inspired to make folk music after seeing Pete Seeger perform when she was 13 years old.

Joan Baez

Joan Baez











But despite the pure and innocent sound, I am sadly left cold by this debut album.  While she Baez shows none of the rancor often associated with Folk, there is also no passion on display.

I incongruously find myself thinking that I would like to hear this gorgeous voice over the captivating grooves of Erykah Badu, to turn two disappointing sounds into one exciting, perhaps surprising one.

I understand that Joan Baez, the album, may be important, but it is far from impressive.  I happened to visit my parents while writing this post, and my mother was playing a later Baez album, Diamonds and Rust from 1975.  I was struck by how much more she appeared to care about these later songs.

Unsurprisingly, I was similarly moved.

I was also highly amused to find the third version of “House of the Rising Sun” on this, our 42nd of 1,000 recordings

By my reckoning, that means we should hear another 60 or so times before we reach Z Z Top . . .

Next week: Anita Baker – Rapture

Owned before blogging? No. (2 of 42. 5%)
Heard before blogging? No. (4 of 42. 10%)
Recommend? No. (34 of 42. 81%)

[19] The Almanac Singers – The Complete General Recordings

16 Aug

It’s is a strange feeling, reviewing an album when you have met the artist in question, got to know him a little over many years.

I have had the privilege of interacting with Pete Seeger over two decades working at the summer camp “next door” to his home. I have seen him awe and inspire kids year after year with his storytelling, his integrity.

He really is larger than life, and at the same time utterly unpretentious, completely ego free.

This week’s recording is a career retrospective of Seeger’s first band, formed with performers every bit his equal as heavyweights of Folk – Lee Hayes and Woody Guthrie.

The Almanac Singers

The Almanac Singers











The music chugs along with the oh-so-familiar call and response structure – repetitive and comforting, with simple seeming banjo picking and harmonica flourishes.

A valid question becomes, was it so familiar before these earnest young men introduced it to a wider audience?

There is a slightly odd mix of protest songs – for and against all manner of things – and traditional sea shanties, all of it incessantly catchy.  Each song is a new earworm.

The album introduces an early cut of an upcoming “1,000 Recordings” entry “The House of the Rising Sun.” Here are the original lyrics, sung by Woody Guthrie from the point of view of the woman rather than the  testosterone laden version made famous by The Animals. It is interesting enough from a historical perspective, but this is far less musically engaging than seemingly every subsequent cover.

“House Of The Rising Sun” is not the only gender bending song – a number of them are sung unapologetically from the point of view of the opposite sex, with no fuss or reference to the phenomenon.

Even more fascinating is the changing and emerging politics of the songs. The very first ones, recorded in 1941, are quite defiantly anti-war as well as consciously towing the Communist line – militant, decidedly inflammatory anti-owner sentiment that would be almost unthinkable today:

“He’s a bastard / Slave driver / Unfair / Bet he beats his wife . . .”

You can pinpoint the moment that both The Almanac’s and Communist Party’s position changed – Pearl Harbor.

The reversals can give a listener whiplash – they are epically schizophrenic. One minute the singers are bashing the warmongerers, the next dancing “Round, Round Hitler’s Grave.”

And somehow each song is as heartfelt and believable as the other.

The one constant is the staunch pro-union stance that underlines it all. Even the Old-English sea shanties take a backseat to these seemingly effective (and undeniably catchy) slices of 40s propaganda.

Seeger and company sang at a time when union organizing was a necessity, when unions really were for the little guy, rather than as much a part of the problem as “the bosses” that they can be today.

What is amazing is that he’s still singing some of these songs more than seventy years later with the same passion and conviction, if with an undeniably diminished instrument.

I saw him perform “Union Maid” (along with many other songs from his unbelievable career) to an audience of 500 kids just last summer. Before beginning his performance, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer paused to look from the stage, into the faces filling the beautiful outdoor theater and said, “I’m looking at the future of this country.”

Still a storyteller at heart. Still inspiring. Still with one key message, summed up in “Dear Mister President”:

This is the reason that I want to fight / Not ’cause everything’s perfect or everything’s right / No it’s just the opposite I’m fighting because / I want a better America and better laws / And better homes and jobs and schools / And no more Jim Crow and no more rules like / “You can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro” / “You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew.”

Hard to disagree with someone who talks this kind of sense.

Owned before blogging? No. (1 of 19. 5%)
Heard before blogging? No. (3 of 19. 16%)
Recommend? Yes. (15 of 19. 79%)

Next Week: Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass – Whipped Cream & Other Delights


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