Sunday, October 3, 2010

My Last Artist Of The Month (Before I Went Solo) Was Joan Baez: The First 10 Years!

The Good: Soulful vocals, Good duration
The Bad: Bland instrumental accompaniment, “live” conceits.
The Basics: A very average compilation, The First Ten Years by Joan Baez is a good entry into Folk music for those who do not know the powerful singer’s works.

When August came, I found myself on the road in Las Vegas and, though I didn’t know it at the time, writing my last reviews for the website I used to review for. On that trip, I was listening to folk music (much to my wife’s chagrin), which is usually pretty wonderful travel music in my book. My wife was not at all thrilled when our annual Las Vegas trip coincided with Joan Baez being my August Artist Of the Month and, truth be told, had it not been for the delay in getting in Pet Shop Boys albums two months ago, she would not be suffering now. As it is, I grew up listening to Joan Baez (and other Folk artists) on long car rides, so this is much more familiar to me than to my wife. I’ve had a few Joan Baez albums pass my way since I became a reviewer, like Baez Sings Dylan (click here for my review) and Ring Them Bells (click here for my review) and I have generally enjoyed what I have heard from Baez. With the compilation album The First 10 Years, I generally like what I am hearing, though I wish there were more consistency in the album.

By that, I mean that The First 10 Years is culled from studio albums and “live” albums and when the works from the “live” albums come up there are the annoying conceits of the audience cheering and the like and I can live without that. Moreover, “live” Joan Baez differs remarkably little from “studio” Baez, so the point of including the applause and cheers is lost on me. But more than anything else, with The First 10 Years, I am hearing a musical simplicity in the works of Joan Baez that replays less well than from many other Folk artists I have listened to. For sure, Folk is supposed to be easy to play and teach to other people, but the guitarwork is frequently unimaginative on The First 10 Years, making it a tougher sell than contemporary Folk artists.

With eighteen tracks occupying exactly seventy minutes on a single c.d., The First 10 Years is a tribute to the early career of Joan Baez as a Folk performer. I was surprised by how limited her creative control on the album actually was: she only wrote a single song (“Sweet Sir Galahad”) and she was not involved in the production of the album. Baez does perform all of the lead vocals and she plays the guitar on every track.

Instrumentally, The First 10 Years is a very stark album. Virtually every song has Baez presenting music with her guitar and minimal (if any) percussion. The result is that each song has the force and resonance of a single woman sitting before a campfire on the prairie singing to herself with little power or sense of inspiration. Indeed, it is only truly on “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word” that Baez breaks out with the guitar enough that the melody is actually memorable and powerful. She plucks through other Dylan songs, like “With God On Our Side” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” with such quiet guitarwork that her voice drowns out her instrumental accompaniment and the guitar does not actually establish the tune. The result is a number of songs, including slower ballads like “Manha de Carnival,” where the guitar leads into the vocals and might punctuate the song, but does little else for the listener (I’m sure it helped Baez keep time while performing, though).

Baez makes up for the lack of anything impressive in the instrumental accompaniment with her vocals. Baez has an awesome soprano voice that is perfectly in the higher registers for pitch and has amazing abilities as far as lung capacity goes. For example, “If I Knew” is a fairly unremarkable song from the guitar strumming, but Baez sings high and long and the melody instantly resonates because of how technically impressive her vocals are. While she articulates exceptionally while going high on songs like “With God On Our Side,” she occasionally takes hitting the high (or shrill) note over enunciating. Largely, though, she has excellent pitch and a voice that can sing soulfully, slow and clear.

Like most Folk singers, Joan Baez sings songs that are essentially musical storysongs, songs that frequently feature characters, imagery and plot points. Because the only song on the album she wrote was “Sweet Sir Galahad,” it seems fair to look at that song. On Baez’s original song, she tells the story of love and bittersweet loss with the lines “Sweet Sir Galahad / Came in through the window / In the night when the moon was in the yard. / He took her hand in his / And shook the long hair / From his neck and he told her / She'd been working much too hard. / It was true that ever since the day / Her crazy man had passed away / To the land of poet's pride, / She laughed and talked alot (sic) / With new people on the block / But always at evening time she cried. / And here's to the dawn of their days” (“Sweet Sir Galahad”). She makes a very linear narrative remarkably musical and she does it without using a lot of obvious rhymes or imagery that it overly done in Folk music.

What Baez is largely known for are her social songs and she covers a number of Dylan songs which appear on The First 10 Years. When Baez sings “Oh the history books tell it / They tell it so well / The cavalries charged / The Indians fell / The cavalries charged / The Indians died/ Oh the country was young / With God on its side. / The Spanish-American / War had its day / And the Civil War too / Was soon laid away / And the names of the heroes / I's made to memorize / With guns on their hands / And God on their side” (“With God On Our Side”) the lines are more clearly enunciated than when Dylan sings them (on many of his recordings). Thus, she carries the message farther than he did and the song resonates with a disturbing quality that it is supposed to possess.

Ultimately, there are a ton of Joan Baez compilation albums on the market and I weakly recommend The First 10 Years on the assumption that some of the others are better. This is a very average compilation and it left me enthusiastic to hear what else Baez has done.

The best song is “With God On Our Side,” the low point is the unmemorable “Te Ador.”

For other works by strong female artists, please check out my reviews of:
The Honesty Room - Dar Williams
Left Of The Middle - Natalie Imbruglia
One Cell In The Sea - A Fine Frenzy


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

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

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