Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Decent Mix Of Socially-Progressive Songs From Peter, Paul & Mary In These Times.

The Good: Decent lyrics, Musically and vocally rich sound
The Bad: Short, Some vocal issues
The Basics: A good album, despite being more of a general folk album and having vocals that sometimes are less impressive than on other albums, In These Times rocks!

As I continue my monthlong exploration of the music of Peter, Paul & Mary, I am discovering that sometimes it is tough to tell the difference between compilations of previously released works and new recordings. For some reason, because the trio works with various charities and social causes which seem to get a cut of their profits, they often have wildly erratic liner notes. With In These Times, though, it appears I have finally stumbled upon an actual unique album, despite the varying copyright dates on the different songs. As such, this becomes the first album that was actually recorded by the Trio that I've heard, as opposed to the various compilations that have been dominating my study so far.

In These Times seems to be an unfocused album which is largely designed to remind folk music listeners what tumultuous times we live in. Recorded and released in 2003, is thematically diverse - within pretty typical folk music themes. Peter, Paul & Mary sing about the importance of unions, protesting injustices, and treating all people alike. As well, they sing to advocate ethnic diversity and reclaim social justice issues as Christian (in the literal form with the idea that Jesus stood for social equality). As well, they include an obvious attempt to keep kids engaged with "All God's Critters" and the overall effect is that Peter, Paul & Mary are trying to keep their causes and their careers alive. And they do fairly well with the album.

With only a dozen tracks (it's tough to say how many songs because the first song is a medley and the final track has a hidden extra song in Spanish) clocking out at 47:40, In These Times is only marginally the creative enterprise of Peter, Paul & Mary. As far as the writing goes, only three songs have members of the band credited even as co-writers and some of their co-writing talents are simply for rearranging the instrumental accompaniment to traditional songs. While the members of the trio sing all of the songs and Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey play the guitars, they are largely singing the words of others. At least Yarrow and Stookey produced the album, so this is apparently the album the band sought to release.

Despite the lack of unique creative sentiments to share, Peter, Paul & Mary make a decent outing with the words of others. First the album has a surprisingly rich sound to it, despite the fact that the songs are largely just accompanied by Stookey and Yarrow on their guitars. The pair produces the album so the instrumental accompaniment sounds more vibrant and musically complex than it actually is. They, for example, give a little bit of reverb on "Don't Laugh At Me" which makes the song sound more energetic and produced. Most of the songs are similar ballads that have simple guitars produced to sound rich, even though in the end it is simply two men on guitars accompanying most of the songs.

Even so, In These Times contains a few more energetic songs as well. For the first time in my study of Peter, Paul & Mary, I've encountered a song where the instrumental accompaniment forms a rich melody that is both memorable and dominates the song. This comes on "Wayfaring Stranger" and the guitarwork is vigorous and enthusiastic. Yarrow and Stookey strum their hearts out and the result is a fantastic song that is unlike anything else Peter, Paul & Mary have done.

But even on "Wayfaring Stranger," when the vocals come on, the instrumental accompaniment is sublimated to the vocals. Peter, Paul & Mary are all about a message (though the specifics of the message may vary with the album) and as such, the vocals are always produced to be louder than the instrumental accompaniment. On "In These Times," the band has great vocals which illustrate their collective talents. On the opening "Union Medley" they do rounds that end in harmonizing and on "Invisible People," all three harmonize beautifully throughout. They break up some of "Union Medley" with spoken word recitations of working conditions, but for the most part In These Times is musical.

There are, unfortunately, two notable exceptions. First, on "All God's Creatures," the group creates animal sounds and the song just becomes noisy and jumbled. It is not one of the group's best songs and unfortunately, following on the heels of "Of This World" which has a wonderful give and take between the vocals of each member, "All God's Creatures" sounds particularly sloppy. Second, the vocals of Mary Travers frequently sound strained and sometimes painful to listen to on In These Times. On "Have You Been To Jail For Justice?" Travers becomes enthusiastic and she amelodically squeals out her lines and that part of the song holds up remarkably poorly over multiple listens.

That said, Travers is not all bad. Her voice is clear and smooth on "Some Walls" both when she sings solo and when she harmonizes with Stookey and Yarrow. Travers has a wonderful soprano voice when she focuses and her voice is a decent contrast to the lower voices of her accompanying men. On In These Times the men, though, have their day. Most of the songs are dominated by their voices and songs like "It's Magic" are presented with a very mellow smoothness of the men's tenor voices that is quite memorable.

Thematically, In These Times is a rather diverse folk album, but it does seem mostly to be preoccupied with reminding listeners that there are causes for social justice that listeners still need to stand up for. There is a very classic 1960s mentality to some of the songs, despite when they were actually written. So, for example, when the band sings "Have you been to jail for justice? / I want to shake your hand! / 'Cause sitting in and laying down / Are ways to take a stand" ("Have You Been To Jail For Justice?") the group has a very different sensibility than the current (and sadly, more apathetic) generation. The band seems to be trying to pass the torch for outright protest onto the next generation and while the song is enthusiastic and fun, it is unlikely to sway many people not already inclined to actually stand up for justice.

My partner, though - who is ridiculously young I sometimes feel - instantly recognized "Don't Laugh At Me" because there was a popular Country music version of it. I am certain I will one day hear it, but on "In These Times," the song is brilliantly stark in a folk music context. As the group harmonizes with the chorus "Don't laugh at me / Don't call me names / Don't get your pleasure from my pain / In God's eyes we're all the same / Someway we'll all have perfect wings" ("Don't Laugh At Me") the message is clear and presented in a heartfelt way that more production is likely to distract from.

Ultimately, In These Times is a worthwhile folk album, but it is a bit more scattered than some works by Peter, Paul & Mary and outside the thematic lack of unity, there are moments the vocals crack and as a result, this is probably better for fans of the group than those just getting into Peter, Paul & Mary. That said, there is enough to recommend In These Times and anyone looking for a classic boost of folk music from the mature voices of Peter, Paul & Mary will find something to enjoy on this album.

The best song is "Don't Laugh At Me," the weakest link is "How Can I Keep From Singing?" more for being unmemorable than in any way bad.

For other albums by Peter, Paul And Mary, please check out my reviews of:
Peter, Paul, & Mommy, Too
Around The Campfire
Songs Of Conscience & Concern


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

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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