Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Moody, Sentimental Album, Album 1700 Is Good Enough To Buy!

The Good: Good vocals, Decent instrumental accompaniment, Lyrics
The Bad: Short, Very simple instrumentally
The Basics: A surprisingly rich album considering the instrumental and thematic monotony, Album 1700 is one of Peter, Paul & Mary’s best!

Folk music is arguably one of the less respected genres of music. I write that not because I have anything against folk (indeed, I am a champion of it who reviews many folk albums here on the site!), but rather because so many people have so many preconceptions of folk music and many of those people who have those perceptions tend to believe that folk-rock music died with the 1960s and there’s either no new good folk or no old worthwhile folk. That postulated, I have my own general theory on folk music: there are three types of folk songs – songs of social justice, historical location songs and emotional ballads – any of which may be presented either as a poem or a musical storysong.

I mention this at the outset of my review of Album 1700 because this album is very simple and it tends to be comprised entirely of emotional ballads. These are songs about feelings and relationships and those looking for the fiery Peter, Paul And Mary who stormed Washington, D.C. to sing for social change or against war, will find the album lacking something. Instead, these songs are almost homogenously songs about longing, loss or just grooving. It is a lighter sounding album, despite having some thematically heavier songs.

With a dozen songs, occupying 39:44 on c.d., Album 1700 is a mix of the creative talents of the members of Peter, Paul, & Mary (Peter Yarrow, Noel Stookey, and Mary Travers) and covers the band performs which were written by others. Yarrow and Stookey wrote or co-wrote eight of the songs (Travers did collaborate with them on “The Song Is Love”). The trio provides all of the lead vocals on all of the songs and the instrumentals are all performed by Yarrow and Stookey. The band was not involved in the production of the album, but given how involved they are in every other aspect of the work, it seems reasonable to consider that this is the band’s musical vision being presented.

That musical vision on Album 1700 is a slower, more contemplative series of songs. While there is the upbeat “I Dig Rock And Roll Music,” that is the exception to the norm here (and it is the closest the album gets to social commentary in that it rails against pop-rock as a genre). Instead, most of the songs are slow ballads like “The Great Mandella (The Wheel Of Life)” and sad storysongs like “Leaving On A Jet Plane.” The songs are memorable, though songs like “Whatshername” and “Weep For Jamie” never became widely known. “Rolling Home” establishes the album as a more somber piece over all. This is rare for an album where the only instruments are two guitars, but this is the power of folk music!

In fact, even the songs that could be quirky by the lyrics are more melancholy in their presentation. The vocals of Stookey, Yarrow and Travers transform lines like “Jimmy I tell you we're two lucky guys / You've got everything that you've planned. / And all things considered I've done fairly well / I mean God's honest truth, man / I love Ruth and Whatshername? / I thought I knew her, Whatshername? / What happened to her, / I don't know why I'll never forget / Whatshername” (“Whatshername”) into more of a dirge. Still, the album sounds smooth and real and the vocals are melodic.

Album 1700 continues a trend in the music of Peter, Paul And Mary, which is to have the trio harmonize to truly draw out the somber mood of a song. Stookey and Yarrow have beautiful, smooth tenor voices and on songs like “If I Had Wings” they illustrate them well. Mary Travers becomes the perfect harmonizer and contrast for them with her elegant soprano voice. All three have an exceptional ability to enunciate while singing and they articulate beautifully so what they are singing may be easily understood.

And the band does have something to say. On Album 1700, it is almost all about human relationships (save “I’m In Love With A Big Blue Frog,” which is more absurd). Outside that song, the lyrics are poetic and meaningful. When the band sings “Weep for Jamie. / For the bones that tear at her flesh inside, / Weep for Jamie, / She lives in the land where her father died. / Don't try to answer her helpless call, / She can't hear your words she feels nothing at all. / With no tomorrow promised by today. / She's the child of emptiness and yesterday” (“Weep For Jamie”) it is hard not to tear up, the emotional force is so powerful and the lines are so sad. The songs deal with death, breakups and interpersonal change consistently on this album.

The thing is, the songs also deal with those aspects with a remarkable sense of poetry to them. Despite some fairly predictable rhyme schemes like the lines “Well, I see the ones who crawl like moles / Who for a front would trade their souls, / A broken mirror's the only hole for them; / And for you who'd exchange yourselves, / Just to be somebody else, / Pretending things you never felt or meant; / Hey, you don't live what you defend, / You can't give so you just bend” (“Rolling Home”), the band manages to have some decent poetry on the album. I’ve never been much of a fan of Bob Dylan’s “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” but the band makes it sound good here!

In all, those looking for a nonthreatening, though sad and short, folk album which focuses more on the human experience, Album 1700 might be the best standalone Peter, Paul And Mary did!

The best track is “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” the low point is “I’m In Love With A Big Blue Frog.”

For other albums by Peter, Paul And Mary, please check out my reviews of:
Peter, Paul And Mary
In Concert
Ten Years Together: The Best Of Peter, Paul And Mary
Peter, Paul, & Mommy, Too
Around The Campfire
Songs Of Conscience & Concern
In These Times
Carry It On: A Musical Legacy
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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