Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Tribute With Peter, Paul And Mary Works Out Well With Lifelines.

The Good: Good duration, Vocally interesting, Moments of musical intrigue, Holds up well over multiple listens.
The Bad: A few less-inspired musical choices.
The Basics: A smart, well-presented album, Lifelines is a tribute from and by Peter, Paul & Mary and a worthwhile addition to any folk music collection.

I swear, the only thing that makes folk singers or folk groups considered immortal is when a tribute album is made to them. When I reviewed the works of Pete Seeger, I was unsurprised to discover he had at least two, including If I Had A Song: The Songs Of Pete Seeger, Volume 2 where almost anyone who is anyone in the folk-rock world covered a song of Pete Seeger or one he made famous. So, I was largely unsurprised to discover that Peter, Paul & Mary had a tribute album that they worked with other artists on, called LifeLines.

It might seem odd that I have picked Peter, Paul & Mary as an Artist Of The Month and after only one album (Peter, Paul, & Mommy, Too was reviewed here!) I am already going on to a tribute album, but Lifelines is an interesting concept for a tribute album. Lifelines includes songs by Peter, Paul and Mary as well as songs by others either that the trio made famous or more recognizable OR tracks that are new to the band which the trio felt carries on their tradition well. As a result, Lifelines is intended to be a journey through a musical continuum of influences on Peter, Paul & Mary, influential songs by the trio and artists presenting works influenced by the group. It's an intriguing concept and for the most part, it works well.

With fifteen tracks (seventeen songs, two tracks are doubled up with two songs) occupying 65:54 on compact disc, Lifelines is a mix of the talents of Peter, Paul & Mary and contributing musical artists, like Emmylou Harris, B.B. King, Judy Collins, Carly Simon and Pete Seeger. The songs are all collaborative efforts, though a great deal of the creative control belongs to the trio of Mary Travers, Noel Stookey and Peter Yarrow. The trio (or members of it) wrote or co-wrote nine of the songs and at least one of the members of Peter, Paul & Mary is credited with a lead vocal performance on each song. As well, Noel and/or Peter play the guitar on all but one of the tracks. Despite the general feeling that this is the album Peter, Paul And Mary wanted released, none of the members of the group are credited as producers or co-producers of the album.

Largely, this is a collaborative effort and the gimmick here is that the band members perform with other noteworthy performers either who influenced them or whom they had an influence on. But more than just a folk music circlejerk, Lifelines actually is a vibrant musical exploration that starts with the folk roots of Peter, Paul And Mary and pushes outward from there. So, while the album starts with Buddy Mondlock's "The Kid" being covered by Peter, Paul and Mary in a very traditional folk-rock way, the album goes blues for "House Of The Rising Sun," which puts Mary Travers in a duet with B.B. King. And while the album returns to a very classic folk sounding duet with Peter Yarrow being joined by both Richie Havens and Carly and Lucy Simon on "The Great Mandala (The Wheel Of Life)," before it gets there, Stookey takes the album on a surprisingly fresh, hip-hop sound with his song "Old Enough (Ode To An Aging Rocker)." While the lyrics are not at all "street," the sound is very classic hip-hop, including the use of keyboards and more prominent percussion, which is unlike Peter, Paul & Mary.

Still, most of the album has a very classic folk sound to it. Take, for example, "Deportee." The old Woody Guthrie song is driven by the vocals of the trio with Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Yarrow and Stookey play their usual acoustic guitars and while there are faint hints of the credited bass and keyboards, I've not been able to pick out any percussion outside how the guitars are used to keep a beat. In fact, despite the credits for each song, the sound is often as stark as a traditional folk-rock album. The songs are largely driven by the guitars, which are almost always sublimated to the sound of the vocals.

As for the vocals, Peter, Paul and Mary choose good collaborators as well as performing well with their own vocals. Mary Travers shows no hint of the raspiness I experienced on Peter, Paul, & Mommy, Too. Instead, on songs like "But A Moment," Travers exhibits exceptional range. She goes low and dusty and then moves into the soprano range and she does it with a fluid quality that is quite exceptional. She and Holly Near harmonize wonderfully on "Home Is Where The Heart Is" and she outshines John Gorka on "24 Green Street." It is easy to see now why the folk community is morning the loss of Travers, as her talents are quite evident on Lifelines.

Not to be outdone, Stookey gives an excellent duet with Emmylou Harris on "For The Love Of It All" and the whole trio harmonizes wonderfully on songs like "75 Septembers." Even when the music takes on a sound similar to Gospel music on "River Of Jordan" with a whole choir of collaborators, it never feels self-serving to the listener and Lifelines appears to be a genuine attempt to explore the full range of folk music. It is a shame the album is only fifteen tracks as the concept could have been fleshed out to be a truly great multiple-disc set.

As it is, Lifelines has a fairly classic folk sensibility in its themes. The songs are unabashedly liberal with songs like "Home Is Where The Heart Is" surprising me for its forthrightness (would that politicians could be so direct and kind!). The album has folk storysongs like "The Kid" and "For The Love Of It All" as well as songs which are more about the social message they are advocating ("Deportee"). But a recurring theme on Lifelines is aging as the group explores the effects of truly growing up ("75 Septembers," "Old Enough (Ode To An Aging Rocker)"). Regardless of how old some of the songs are, the band makes them seem fresh again on this album, especially Mart Travers's rework of "House Of The Rising Sun."

The most engaging song on the album is "Old Enough (Ode To An Aging Rocker)" which samples a hip-hop reimagining of "Talking Union." The funky song explores how music has changed and the progression of folk to rock to hip-hop. Stookey wrote (and the band performs with wonderful irony) "And now my kids are taking me to the shows / There's hip-hop, rap, grunge music I don't know / I like to think I'm still part of the crowd / But, how can they hear the lyrics / When the music is so loud" ("Old Enough (Ode To An Aging Rocker)") and it carries with it the essential difference between generations of music listeners. My partner seems astonished that I place such emphasis on what musical artists are trying to say with their lyrics; I guess I have a 1960s sensibility about such things!

What pleased me most as far as the lyrics went, though, had to be the pro-tolerance position of "Home Is Where The Heart Is." As we seem to live in times where the mainstream arguments against teaching anything about gay, lesbian and bisexual culture is that (apparently) it will corrupt children or they somehow cannot handle such things, "Home Is Where The Heart Is" wonderfully flies in the face of such sensibilities and advocates being direct with children about such relationships. Written by Sally Fingerett and performed by Mary Travers and Holly Near, the song has great lines like "Across the yard live Deb and Tricia / With their tools and ladders / And their room addition / My kid yells over 'Are ya having a baby?' / They wink & smile, they say, 'Someday maybe.' / But through their doors go kids and mommies / Funny how you don't see the daddies go in / My little girl wonders / 'Bout this house with no men . . ." ("Home Is Where The Heart Is").

Lifelines is ultimately a satisfying musical experience and anyone who likes folk music is bound to find something to enjoy on this album. As well, it is rather non-threatening to those who are not, traditionally, fans of the folk genre. Despite the instrumental simplicity of the accompaniment to most of the songs and a few tracks that hold up less well compared to the others, this is a great concept and a decent execution of that concept.

The best song is "Old Enough (Ode To An Aging Rocker)" and the low point is the unmemorable "24 Green Street."

For other former Artist Of The Month works, please check out my reviews of:
Break Every Rule - Tina Turner
Forty Licks - The Rolling Stones
It Ain't Easy: The Essentials - Wilson Pickett


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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