Monday, May 9, 2011

The Next Artist Of The Month Finally Arrives With Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too!

The Good: Good song variety
The Bad: Short, A bit repetitive, Some awkward vocals
The Basics: A largely disappointing and unimaginative children's album, Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too is riddled with vocal flaws and a lack of inspiration.

With the death of Mary Travers of the folk group Peter, Paul & Mary following so closely on the heels of Michael Jackson's death, hers was largely neglected by the media. So, I opted to review the works of Peter, Paul & Mary to call attention to the classic Folk band.

Unfortunately, in the pantheon of great and worthwhile Peter, Paul & Mary albums, Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too is not going to hold up and thrill generations to come. This album, geared toward children's folk music, is not the best example of the talents of artists and performers Peter, Paul & Mary. From a PBS special, Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too is a live recording of a collection of songs performed with children in the audience and a lot of audience participation. The thing is, I grew up with my father playing a lot of Peter, Paul, and Mary (especially on long car trips - I can't wait to review the reunion album, because I swear I must have heard that a hundred times!) and what one ought to know about the group right off the bat is they have absolutely no offensive content. As a result, listening to Peter, Paul & Mary is not going to screw up your kids (though it might make them liberals). As a result, there is no real need for an album specifically for children from the band.

And yet, Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too is a follow-up to a children's album the group did decades prior that. It has a more mature Peter Yarrow, Noel Stookey and Mary Travers and it is a good blend of their work and those of other artists. With over thirteen songs (there are thirteen tracks, but some of them are blended songs, like the combination of "Somacwaza" and "Hey, Motswala" ) occupying 55:15 on compact disc, Peter, Paul, & Mommy, Too is a combination of traditional folk music and alterations by Peter, Paul & Mary. Classic Peter, Paul and Mary songs like "Puff The Magic Dragon" are presented alongside newer works like Travers' "Poem For Erika." As well, the group makes lyrical alterations to several songs on the album. As a result, the members of the trio are credited with writing or co-writing seven of the sixteen songs. The others are written by folk/country greats like John Denver, Woodie Guthrie, and Pete Seeger.

And while it might seem like I am going a little easier on Peter, Paul And Mary with the creative control aspect, so many folk songs are covered and re-covered by various artists that a group that has an album designed for children that has so many songs where the group actually had as much input as the trio does on this album is actually impressive. Moreover, some of the songs like "Right Field" are more obscure and are likely not overplayed outside children's albums like this one. The trio of Peter, Paul And Mary plays most of the instruments and they provide all of the primary vocals. As well, Peter Yarrow is credited as a co-producer on the album. As such, it is hard to argue that this is anything but the sound the band intended for the album.

The fundamental problems with Peter, Paul And Mommy, Too is that the album is designed pretty much only for children and while Yarrow may have co-produced the album, he did not appear to be looking out for Travers (or the audience) when he did so. On several songs - most notably the crescendos at the end of "Inside," "The Garden Song" and "Don't Ever Take Away My Freedom," Travers' voice cracks. Sadly, her vocals are raspy and she sounds like she is singing after a life of chain smoking. This makes some of the musical moments that should be enthusiastic and energetic almost painful to listen to. In "The Garden Song," especially, when Travers begins to harmonize and actually be creative with the harmonization she is presenting, it comes out in a way that is just a little flat and screechy and the seasoned ear cringes. Actually, as someone who cannot hold a note, it is pretty sad when someone like me notices someone's tone is off, but there it is.

Conversely, the men of the group truly step up on songs like "The Fox" and "Right Field." While "Right Field" is presented almost sounding like Kermit The Frog is singing it, it becomes a charming little musical storysong about a boy waiting out in right field to be useful to his baseball team. Similarly, the men are charming singing on "Inside" where they are expressive about such things as being quiet in the library and the like. The group does an exceptional job at articulating and for the most part, the music sounds good.

Even so, the vocals are not always wonderfully produced on the album. Take, for example, "I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly." Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too was taped with children from a live PBS performance and taking the audio track from that, Yarrow and Stookey's enthusiastic and playful vocals are often sublimated to the sounds of children giggling on songs like "I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly." It seems like the group is more concerned with recreating the live experience than they are with creating a work that will stand the test of time.

Instrumentally, Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too is a very mundane album. Most of the musical instruments are guitars played by Yarrow and Stookey and they are generally minimal musical accompaniment for the vocals. This music is far more about expressing something lyrically than it is creating an instrumental piece that resonates. Still, on some of the songs like "Hey, Motsawala," the group adds accompanists who play more intriguing musical instruments like the dobro and kalimbala. This adds a more international flavor to the songs and this opens it up to a larger audience who might not be familiar with folk music or whose knowledge of folk music is limited to American folk music. Largely, though the instrumentation is simple accompaniment and there are no songs dominated by anything but the vocals.

As a result, the lyrics become especially important on Peter, Paul & Mommy, Too and in the classic folk tradition, the album mixes musical storysongs ("Puff (The Magic Dragon)," "The Fox," and "I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly") with songs about social justice ("Don't Ever Take Away My Freedom" and "We Shall Overcome"). There are family-oriented songs like "Poem For Erika/ For Baby" as well as environmental education songs ("The Garden Song"). They are inoffensive - so much so that they alter lyrics in "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly" to keep the old lady alive and they have Puff The Magic Dragon still out there and happy in the world - and family-oriented and they are generally performed so they may be understood. Outside the accompanying vocals by children, they are clear and the work of the band.

But the work is largely unmemorable and having listened to it over a dozen times now, what sticks out most for me is how indistinct and generic the presentations are, outside their flaws. "We Shall Overcome," for example, is presented almost identically to how Seeger presented it on his children's album. The interpretations are largely blasé and leave the listener feeling unfulfilled and unenlightened. As a result, only children who hold up well with repetition and might not be able to pick out the flaws are truly likely to enjoy this one. While Peter, Paul And Mary have many great albums, this is (alas) not one of their best.

The best track is "Right Field," the low point is the unmemorable "The Eddystone Light."

For other, prior, Artist Of The Month reviews, please check out:
50 Greatest Hits - Reba McEntire
@#%&*! Smilers - Aimee Mann
Any Day Now - Joan Baez


For other music-related reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

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

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