Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Joan Baez Hits: Greatest And Others Is An Eclectic Mix Of Other People’s Hits

The Good: Good variations, Interesting song choices, Good lyrics
The Bad: SHORT!
The Basics: An interesting album that is incredibly short and generally not made up of the most recognizable or interesting works by Joan Baez, Hits: Greatest And Others is worth the listen.

It is rare that I actually recommend a short album that makes poor use of the c.d. medium. In fact, it is even more rare that I do it for a vintage album, given my strong belief that artists re-releasing old LPs and cassettes on the updated medium ought to double up (oftentimes, that is more than possible). So, even though I only consider Hits: Greatest And Others by Joan Baez an average album, the fact that I recommend it ought to be a ringing endorsement for the work.

Hits: Greatest And Others is a small collection from 1973 of Joan Baez covers (save “Blessed Are . . .”) which are fairly unlikely songs for the Folk diva. Baez takes popular (“Eleanor Rigby”) and Folk (“I Pity The Poor Immigrant”) songs and gives them her own twist on Hits: Greatest And Others. Some of the song selections are obvious (ooh, a folk cover of “Let It Be!”) but others are positively inspired, like Baez covering the Simon & Garfunkel song “Dangling Conversation.” But more than anything else, Hits: Greatest And Others is a series of interesting musical choices largely presented in different ways from the originals, making it a decent experience for anyone who likes Joan Baez or different takes on popular music.

With only eleven songs occupying just over half an hour, the biggest strike against Hits: Greatest And Others (other than the name being a complete misnomer – none of these were Joan Baez’s greatest hits!) is that it is dreadfully short. The album could easily have been paired up with another from the same time period, as they were all about that short and as a compilation, it is not like it has a huge “album cohesion” feel to it anyway. As it stands, Baez lent her writing talents only to “Blessed Are . . .” but none of the other tracks. Joan Baez provides all of the lead vocals and she plays guitar on some of the tracks. She was not involved in the production of the album.

Hits: Greatest And Others features an eclectic mix of songs and it is aurally interesting. Baez does a very traditional cover of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word,” but she ups the tempo on “Let It Be” and plays her guitar with an upbeat energy that changes the song and makes it her own. “Heaven Help Us All” has Baez backed with so many instruments that it has an orchestral sound to it, which is very atypical for Baez. “Dangling Conversation” has more rich guitarwork than the original Simon & Garfunkel theme, but it still sounds very much like the original. For the most part, Joan Baez shows respect to the original works, though I have never heard the original version of “Help Me Make It Through The Night” for comparison.

That said, Joan Baez has a very distinctive voice and many of the songs she is covering were originally performed by men. Her soprano voice is rich, full and appropriately high. She infuses “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” with a Country twang and her vocals on “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word” are vastly more clear than Dylan’s original ones. On this album, Baez tends to stay mostly in her soprano range, only seldom going into her more alto register on songs like "Blessed Are . . ." The result is an album that is vocally strong, but monotonous. More than anything else, though Baez has a clarity to her voice that is distinct and melodic. Outside "Eleanor Rigby," the songs are generally sung as slow, drawn-out ballads so there is a homogenous quality to many of the songs.

Thematically, Hits: Greatest And Others is very much a folk album. There are musical storysongs which mix characters and themes (like "Eleanor Rigby" does with loneliness) and social commentary songs. The Dylan song "I Pity The Poor Immigrant" explores the persecution of the immigrant well in ways that few outside the Folk genre ever truly do. In the classic Folk tradition, the album also includes a historical ballad in the form of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," which is a Joan Baez standard on not just this collection.

As for the writing, given that only "Blessed Are . . ." is a Joan Baez song, her songwriting only comes under scrutiny on that song. The concept is an interesting one, exploring nomads in both geography and interpersonal relationships with the metaphor of one way tickets. When she sings "For you and I are one way ticket holders / On a one way street / Which lies across a golden valley / Where the waters of joy and hope run deep. / So if you pass the parents weeping / Of the young ones who have died, / Take them to your warmth and keeping / For blessed are the tears they cried / And many were the years they tried. / Take them to that valley wide / And let their souls be pacified" ("Blessed Are. . .") she makes a poignant statement about life. Baez is a talented poet and her ability to write strong comparisons sets her apart.

An adequate collection of songs that are more poppy than Joan Baez's usual fare, Hits: Greatest And Others is an interesting diversion for fans of Joan Baez, pop and folk music, though it leaves one wishing there was far more to it.

The best song on the album is "Let It Be," the low point is "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz."

For other works by Joan Baez, please check out my reviews of:
The First Ten Years
Rare, Live And Classic
Baez Sings Dylan
Ring Them Bells


For other music reviews, please visit my index page!

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

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