Monday, June 20, 2011

If You Only Have One Peter, Paul & Mary Album, Ten Years Together Is Fair.

The Good: Great vocals, Wonderful lyrics, Decent instrumental accompaniment
The Bad: Short, Not all the hits from the trio
The Basics: While packed with good songs, The Best Of Peter, Paul & Mary: Ten Years Together is a bit anemic for fans of the trio.

In the case of Peter, Paul & Mary, I felt that when they were my Artist Of The Month, I did not have a chance to listen to nearly all that I honestly wanted to and now that I have my hands on a few more of their albums, I am bound to enjoy more from the trio. Unfortunately, the first album I picked up was The Best Of Peter, Paul & Mary: Ten Years Together. This is a compilation of arguably the biggest hits the band had in the 1960s, which means that it is woefully inadequate for anyone looking for a true career retrospective (for that, the easy choice is the boxed set Carry It On, reviewed here!). This c.d. is a reissue of an album released in 1970, which – ironically - was only eight years after the first Peter, Paul & Mary album release.

Ten Years Together is another example of how the enduring popularity and careers of many notable folk-rock performers were completely underestimated. The trio of Peter Yarrow, Noel Stookey and Mary Travers had exceptional staying power, not just as cover performers, but as artists writing their own material. Ten Years Together is definitely jumping the gun on their career and those who are looking for a more complete collection of what Peter, Paul & Mary have produced over the years will want to hunt down one of the more thorough compilations. That said, all of the songs on this album are wonderful and illustrate the strengths and talents of the band.

With only thirteen songs, clocking out at just over thirty-six minutes of music, this is a terrible use of the compact disc medium, but a decent example of what Peter, Paul & Mary did with their performances. The thirteen studio recordings culled from prior releases include eleven covers and only two songs written by members of the trio (“I Dig Rock And Roll Music” and “Puff (The Magic Dragon)”). While this might seem creatively anemic, the members of the trio make up for it by providing all of the lead vocals and the instrumental accompaniment on all of the songs. The bandmates were not credited with production of the album or any of the tracks, though.

For those who have not heard of Peter, Paul & Mary, they were a folk music trio and their sound was unique. Peter Yarrow and Noel Stookey played guitars and sang and Mary Travers accompanied them with her voice on most songs. The overall sound of the songs on Ten Years Together is indicative of the simplicity that most of the songs by the trio took on. As a result, most of the songs have the clear tenor voices of Yarrow and Stookey harmonizing – as they do beautifully on “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Don’t Thing Twice, It’s All Right” – or contrasting with Travers’ soprano vocals. The feminine voice of Travers makes songs like “500 Miles” ring and resonate and the way the band comes together on songs like “Leaving On A Jet Plane” gives it a flavor that the original – performed only by John Denver – did not.

The instrumental accompaniment on all of the songs is very simple, which makes sense when one considers that Peter, Paul & Mary were performing in the traditional folk tradition when they began performing. Folk music is designed to be easily remembered and sung, so it may be passed on easily and performed with minimal instrumental accompaniment. As such, all of the songs on the album have the simple guitars of Stookey and Yarrow without anything else clouding up their sound. This is not to say that they perform without any catchy tunes, either. “Puff (The Magic Dragon)” is instantly recognizable with its catchy rise and fall tune and “I Dig Rock And Roll Music” is energetic in the way the men strum to it. Even the slower “Leaving On A Jet Plane” has a recognizable tune that is accented by the guitars of the men, especially in the moments before the lyrics begin when the guitars are plaintively plucked like heartstrings.

But for those who know what folk music is truly about, the question has to be "how are the lyrics?" Ten Years Together tends to focus on social change and relationships, usually the loving relationships that have soured or been lost. While the writer who is best-represented on this album is actually Bob Dylan, the longing lines of others manage to get through as well. While Dylan's social commentaries are present and powerful under the voices and guitars of Peter, Paul & Mary, when they sing lines like "I ain't the kind to hang around / With any new love that I've found / Movin' is my stock and trade / I'm movin' on / I won't think of you when I'm gone / So don't you shed a tear for me / I ain't the love you thought I'd be / I got a hundred more like you / So don't be blue / I'll have a thousand 'fore I'm through" ("For Lovin; Me") resonate with similar force to Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's All Right."

Similarly, the band continues the trend of musical storytelling that folk music is well-known for. Most prominently on this album would have to be "Puff (The Magic Dragon)." This song tells a very sad, but creative story complete with characters and conflict and it is hard not to get a tear in one's eye when they hear the band sing "A dragon lives forever but not so little boys / Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys. / One gray night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more / And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar" ("Puff (The Magic Dragon)"). While often considered a children's song, that still resonates well with adults and characterizes well the sense of loss of innocence that comes with adulthood.

Much of the album, though, has anthems of social and political change. While "I Dig Rock And Roll Music" explores the cultural changes as popular music evolved away from folk, songs like "Blowin' In The Wind" and "If I Had A Hammer" are strong antiwar and social justice anthems. And the sound good here.

Ultimately, the only real problem with Ten Years Together is that it is so short and there are other Peter, Paul, And Mary compilations that came later which use the c.d. medium better and include more of the band's hits. That was why I finally went with not recommending; fans deserve more than this after almost fifty years of listening to the trio!

The best song is "500 Miles," the low point is "Stewball."

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


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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