Wednesday, September 29, 2010

When the Fans of Folk Forsake Their Idols: Ring Them Bells Is Disappointing Joan Baez.

The Good: Great vocals, Some wonderful lyrics, Some Decent Live Presentations
The Bad: Self-indulgent Live Feeling, Nothing completely new, Little Shines
The Basics: Despite some intriguing duets, much of Ring Them Bells is Joan Baez as we already know her, resulting in this not adding significantly to her repertoire.

It was not until I was halfway through the live album Ring Them Bells that I realized that the tracks had left utterly no impression on me. That's never a good sign. I picked up Ring Them Bells because Dar Williams is one of my favorite musical artists. At a concert I attended of hers, she told a wonderful story about Joan Baez and touring with her and the genesis of the song "You're Aging Well," which was one of the stand outs on Dar's debut, The Honesty Room (click here for my review of that album!). When I saw the Joan Baez album Ring Them Bells had "You're Aging Well," with Dar Williams, I thought this would be a great album for me. I grew up listening to my father's Joan Baez - and innumerable other folk - albums.

I feel like I've been writing the words "Wow, that was a disappointment" a lot lately in my music reviews. Sadly, even after three listens to Ring Them Bells, I remain underwhelmed.

Joan Baez, for those who do no know of her works, is one of the most talented singer-songwriters to come out of the folk-rock music movement of the '60s. Joan Baez is one of the few lyrical and musical rivals to Bob Dylan. Yeah, she's that big. Baez, for those who have not explored her musical career, is one of the greatest songwriters of the last century.

But more than that, she is one of the greatest performers in American music history. Baez, more than any other musical artist in memory, has the ability to take works written by other musical artists and create the definitive recordings of the lyrics by making them her own with her distinctive voice and arrangements. Songs like Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and Robbie Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" are more frequently compared to the Joan Baez versions than the originals. That is the profound effect Joan Baez has as a singer and performer.

And that's all the praise I have for Joan Baez right now. Joan Baez is a terrific artist, but Ring Them Bells is not her superlative recording.

With fifteen tracks, Ring Them Bells is a live concert recorded, that features Joan Baez with any number of quest musicians and vocalists. Dar Williams, The Indigo Girls, Janis Ian, Mary Black, and Mary Chapin Carpenter stand out as contributors to this live album. And out of all of that, there are two tracks I would take from Ring Them Bells.

Joan's duet with the Indigo Girls on "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" is beautiful and wrenching. It's what one hopes for when hearing great vocalists collaborating. They do not reinvent the wheel, but I can imagine watching the three harmonizing and being blown away (it's almost enough to make one wish they were at the concert to see that performance!). And the final track, Joan Baez's simple, vocal-only rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" raises the bar on even Baez. It is the most haunting and articulate presentation of this classic song I have ever heard and it is an knockout to close the album.

But that's it, those two tracks. As a microcosm for the album, I will refer to "You're Aging Well." I'm a fan of Dar Williams, I like Joan Baez, I think Dar Williams wrote a great song with "You're Aging Well." The problem is hearing Dar and Baez doing the song as a duet, I expected it to be an experience, something that added to the song. I wanted to hear what Baez did with it. I wanted to hear what Baez and Dar sounded like when harmonizing.

But, for the most part, they don't. Dar took one stanza, Baez another, with minimal harmonizing on the refrain. And the notes are pretty much what Dar wrote and performed on The Honesty Room. In short, there is the illusion on this track - and throughout the album - of being something new, something fresh and it is simply a repackaging of the same old.

That's the disappointment that is Ring Them Bells. I can imagine this might have been a great concert, but I'm not reviewing the concert, I'm reviewing the album. As a recording, it does not hold up as an essential, or truly worthwhile, listening experience. I expected more. And for a live album, there is little interaction with the audience or other performers, so when there is applause or acknowledgment of the artist on stage with her at the time, there is a decadent, self-indulgent feeling to it.

The two tracks, "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" pull the album up into average territory. The rest of the tracks are simply filler.

And I'm a fan . . . .

For other albums by strong female vocalists, please check out my reviews of:
One Cell In The Sea - A Fine Frenzy
Left Of The Middle - Natalie Imbruglia
Tuesday Night Music Club - Sheryl Crow


For other music reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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