Friday, November 12, 2010

Pressure To Perform: Don McLean's American Pie.

The Good: Lyrics, Voice
The Bad: Duration, Musically unimaginative
The Basics: Excellent lyrics and a smooth voice can't cover the similarities in sound between the tracks on Don McLean's American Pie.

When I first encountered the Don McLean album American Pie, I found myself baffled. Others who reviewed it and called it a classic, openly admitted they liked only two tracks on it. What's that all about?!

That said, Don McLean's American Pie is a good album, but not a great one. My biggest point of contention with other reviewers is in saying he's a master of the guitar. If that's so, why does American Pie sound so similar in the guitars to "Everybody Loves Me, Baby?" And why does "Vincent" sound like "Empty Chairs?" Perhaps McLean is an excellent guitar player and I'm missing it; it strikes me that an excellent guitar player would know how to play more than three different songs (or should that read different sounding songs?) on the guitar. Heather Nova certainly does. So, my biggest beef is probably that so much of the music sounds the same.

My other problem is the duration. Nine tracks, none terribly long outside the title track, there is a lot of space on this tape (yup, I'm listening to it on audio cassette!). This is the reason many artists re-releasing old records as c.d.s add a new song or two to actually utilize the new medium better.

Outside that, the album is more than just fine. The lyrics are amazing. There's no one on the radio right now who rights as Don McLean does. His sad songs ("Vincent" and "Empty Chairs") are positively tear-inspiring, his funny song ("Everybody Loves Me, Baby") is upbeat and brings a smile to my face still.

Between his lush, passionate voice and his lyrics, it's almost easy to overlook the fact that his sound is repetitive. He has an amazing voice that is articulate and expressive and it's so refreshing to hear. It's nice to hear lyrics that are comprehensible, where the message of them is the important thing.

The thing is, some of his songs seem somewhat dated ("The Grave" is very much a post-Vietnam antiwar song), but he sings of them in ways that make the underlying human emotion or experience of them into a lasting, universal anthem. Like the title track "American Pie," most of the songs have great meaning outside the simple impetus of them (that is, listening to "American Pie" it has far more meaning than just simply retelling of the day Buddy Holly, et al. died). McLean is deeply emotive, if overwhelmingly depressing.

Better than the upcoming Justin Bieber album and probably, despite the banal similarity of so many of the tracks in sound, more enduring as well. "Empty Chairs" is the strongest link and even the beautiful vocal work on it won't save "Babylon."

For other, similar, artists, please check out my reviews of:
Many Great Companions - Dar Williams
Tuesday Night Music Club - Sheryl Crow
Any Day Now - Joan Baez


For other album reviews, please be sure to visit my index page for a complete listing!

© 2010, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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