Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cover Pete: Pete Seeger's Songs Are Covered Adequately With If I Had A Song Vol.2.

The Good: Decent lyrics, Generally good vocals, Duration
The Bad: Few recognizable songs, Some songs not by Pete Seeger
The Basics: A non-threatening way for those who have not yet discovered the music of Pete Seeger, several contemporary artists cover Seeger's lesser-known works.

Right now, I find myself contemplating the bottom of the barrel of the works I have in for my current Artist Of The Month, Pete Seeger. This is not to say that If I Had A Song: The Songs Of Pete Seeger, Vol. 2 is a bad album or actually the bottom of the barrel qualitatively, but when I review albums by an artist, I tend to hit the tribute albums last and this recording is essentially a tribute to Pete Seeger by other folk artists who count Seeger as an influence.

Rather oddly, though, If I Had A Song: The Songs Of Pete Seeger, Vol. 2 (henceforth referred to as If I Had A Song) is not only a collection of songs by Pete Seeger, but songs popularized by Pete Seeger as well. "Little Boxes," for example, was written by Malvina Reynolds and popularized by Seeger. Similarly, Seeger only translated and put music to "Guantanamera." Oddly enough, Seeger himself appears on his own tribute album on five of the tracks. This is an erratic collection of interpretations of Pete Seeger's works that range from the true-to-the-original to radical reinterpretations, making it a tough sell for those who are looking for a consistent work.

With sixteen songs clocking out at just under seventy minutes, If I Had A Song uses the c.d. medium well to capture the efforts of diverse artists like Dar Williams, Jackson Browne, and Moxy Fruvous. Pete Seeger wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, but outside that the music is very much the work of the artists who perform them. Seeger himself is paired up with his protege Arlo Guthrie on two tracks and with Larry Long on another, but his vocals never dominate. Seeger was not involved in the production of the album either.

If I Had A Song is quite different from the works of Pete Seeger from the very first track in that it is musically richer and involves far more production than the average Pete Seeger work. Presented by his musical descendants, If I Had A Song adapts many of Pete Seeger's songs to a more contemporary sound. As a result, Eric Andersen's version of "Snow, Snow" has the artist sounding like acoustic Bowie with a fuller rock ballad feel than Seeger's original song. Similarly, "Maple Syrup Time" sounds less energetic and more produced than any version Seeger did that I've heard. This is in no small part due to the fact that Moxy Fruvous is a guitar, bass, piano and drum ensemble, whereas Seeger's songs tend to be one man and a guitar or banjo when he recorded them.

The most radical reinterpretation on the album comes from John McCutcheon and Corey Harris, who perform the old song by The Weavers "Talking Union" as a rap. The rap actually works and the men performing it actually add a few new lines to make its relevancy timely to those fighting management today. What is truly surprising is how well the song works as a rap and the song stands out as one of the best on "If I Had A Song." It certainly works better than the country-western tang infused into "Last Train To Nuremberg" by the Joel Rafael Band.

Conversely, my perennial favorite, Dar Williams, appears with an almost indecipherable version of "Oh, Had I A Golden Thread." Similarly, the vocals on "Little Boxes" as performed by Kate & Anna McGarrigle are done such that the Canadian sisters sound Swedish. This is not to say that only the women have a tough time on the album; the presentation of "Words, Words, Words" sounds melodramatic and overly "poppy" for a Pete Seeger song.

Ultimately, If I Had A Song is interesting, but it is not a strong compilation that works well with the songs that are selected. More casual Pete Seeger listeners will wonder where any recognizable Seeger favorites are hiding; "We Shall Overcome," "Turn, Turn, Turn," and others are absent from this album. Ultimately, I leaned toward "recommend" because the money for this c.d. goes to several good causes according to the liner notes but also because when I consider how instrumentally stark most Pete Seeger albums are, this album brings his music alive in a very contemporary way that is fun, even if the album is unlikely to get a lot of play by die-hard fans.

The best track is "Talking Union," the low point is the dull presentation of "Walking Down Death Row."

For actual Pete Seeger albums, please check out my reviews of:
American Industrial Ballads
We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert June 8, 1963
God Bless The Grass
Stories & Songs For Little Children
The Best Of Pete Seeger (Vanguard)
If I Had A Hammer: Songs Of Hope And Struggle
Folk Songs For Young People
Greatest Hits (Brazilian Import)
American Favorite Ballads, Volume 5


For other music 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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