Saturday, May 21, 2011

Songs Of Conscience & Concern Is A Worthwhile Peter, Paul & Mary Compilation!

The Good: Thematically well-developed, Good vocals, Decent lyrics
The Bad: Duration, Musically simple
The Basics: Lyrically wonderful and vocally well-presented (if simple in the instrumental accompaniment), Songs Of Conscience & Concern is a thematically unified album that sounds more like an album than a compilation!

One of the common elements from any number of folk music albums is the willingness to do theme albums and actually stick to a concept. Moreover, the folk music audience seems quite willing to give concept albums a shot and the classic folk greats manage to capitalize on the enthusiasm for their works when making a concept album. The concept albums from folk artists tend to be socially-progressive and the new audiences for classic folk artists tend to find great value in compilations as the older albums fall out of print. The best compilations both hold a theme and cull from the full range of an artist's career. One of the best compilations I've heard lately is Peter, Paul, and Mary's Songs Of Conscience & Concern.

Songs Of Conscience & Concern is exactly what it sounds like, a theme album with socially-relevant songs that advocate social responsibility and liberal values. The album is unified by a strong sensibility that all humans deserve equal treatment, that power ought to be free and safe, and that the U.S. government has no right to influence internal matters in foreign powers, like El Salvador. While the songs advocate unions, equal rights and environmental causes, the music is in no way droll and the album actually comes together surprisingly well. It feels like the album was designed as a theme album of original works, not a compilation. This is the highest compliment I can give such a compilation, that the overall tone and song choice works so well that it sounds like the album was created originally this way and not cobbled together from ten other albums. For those looking for the complete works of Peter, Paul & Mary, Songs Of Conscience & Concern contains a sole unique recording, which is the studio version of "Don't Laugh At Me." All of the other songs on the album are collected from other albums, many of which are harder to find on compact disc.

With fifteen songs occupying 55:25, Songs Of Conscience & Concern is a Peter, Paul & Mary compilation that is only marginally the creative work of the trio of Peter Yarrow, Noel Stookey, and Mary Travers. Members of the group only wrote or co-wrote four of the songs and one of them - "El Salvador" - is the most dated on the album. The rest of the songs are classic folk works by the likes of Woody Guthrie and The Weavers or by up and coming folk artists, like Sally Fingerett. However, the members of the trio play their own instruments and they perform the vocals on the album. As well, Peter Yarrow produced this particular compilation. As a result, it is reasonable to consider this to be the creative work that the group intended.

Songs Of Conscience & Concern is a disappointingly short compilation, but the strength of the album is that it features less obvious or famous tracks by Peter, Paul & Mary. I had never heard "El Salvador" before and only recently had I heard the songs "Don't Laugh At Me" and "Home Is Where The Heart Is." Even so, it lacks the standards of Peter, Paul & Mary like "We Shall Overcome" or "Down By The Riverside." The trade off, of course, is that this album features a number of songs that still resonate that are thematically and socially relevant. "Power" explores the need for renewable, non-nuclear power sources. "Don't Laugh At Me" advocates human understanding between all peoples, despite their differences and "Home Is Where The Heart Is" is an unabashedly pro-gay and lesbian song.

Peter, Noel and Mary provide the vocals on all of the songs. Peter is wonderfully expressive on songs like "All Mixed Up" and Noel is articulate on "El Salvador." Noel and Peter occupy much of the same vocal range as they sing fairly low, but both are able to make their voices clear around honest, articulate lyrics. Mary Travers offers a wonderful contrast to their lower-range singing with her alto and soprano presentations on songs like "Old Coat." She has a surprising amount of vocal force on "Wasn't That A Time" which is more about freedom and the struggle to establish the United States than the rest of the album. When the three harmonize, which they do on tracks like "All Mixed Up," they form a musically cohesive sound that is consistently delightful.

Instrumentally, Songs Of Conscience & Concern is a stark album. The songs are presented with the guitars of Stookey and Yarrow with little else. "The Great Mandala (The Wheel Of Life)" is soft and slow, while "Wasn't That A Time" and "All Mixed Up" are more boisterous songs. Throughout the album, the guitars are overwhelmed by the vocals and this is very typical of classic folk music. The emphasis is on the lyrics and singing over the instrumental accompaniment is very typical, but it makes for a good album that sets out to do what it claims to, which is to present Songs Of Conscience & Concern.

Part of the way Songs Of Conscience & Concern achieves its theme is by keeping a broader range of what is considered the social conscience. As a result, the songs are not just limited to obvious social justice songs like "We Shall Overcome" (which is not on the album). Take "Power," for example. With its lines like "Just give me the warm power of the sun / Give me the steady flow of a waterfall / Give me the spirit of living things as they return to clay. / Just give me the restless power of the wind / Give me the comforting glow of a wood fire / But please take all of your atomic poison power away. / Everybody needs some power I’m told / To shield them from the darkness and the cold / Some may see a way to take control when it’s bought and sold" ("Power"), it illustrates a strong concern for the fate of humanity as well as the environment. This broader sense is often lacking from contemporary folk works, which tend to be very focused and even more specific.

This is not to say this album lacks anything so specific or obvious. After singing "Just like Poland is 'protected' by her Russian friends / The junta is 'assisted' by Americans / And if 60 million dollars seems too much to spend / in El Salvador / They say for half a billion they could do it right / Bomb all day, burn all night / Until there's not a living thing upright / in El Salvador" Peter Yarrow belts out the explicit "Don't you think it's time to leave / El Salvador" ("El Salvador") and that level of concern and call for action is refreshing. While not funding corrupt or problematic regimes seems obvious, there are few musical artists outside the folk rock artists who actually call for such social justice and Peter Yarrow is one of the few. He does it exceptionally well on "El Salvador."

While it may seem like all Songs Of Conscience & Concern is thematically heavyhanded, I enjoyed it. It is refreshing (to me) to hear an album that states a musical premise and then truly develops or runs with it. Songs Of Conscience & Concern explores issues with the environment, human interaction and government misuse. All of the songs are easy to listen to, articulate and ultimately it makes for a truly wonderful album, so much so we are left wishing for more.

The best song is "All Mixed Up," the least memorable is "Pastures Of Plenty."

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


For other music reviews, please click here to visit my index page!

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

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