Thursday, June 30, 2011

Not The Best Pete Seeger, Not A Fan Of Carolyn Hester? Seeger & Hester Flops!

The Good: Good Pete Seeger vocals, Adequate musical accompaniment
The Bad: A little short, Not wild about Carolyn Hester's vocals
The Basics: A poor compilation, Seeger & Hester is a short album that provides poorly produced renditions of Pete Seeger and Carolyn Hester singing traditional folk songs.

When I selected Pete Seeger as my Artist Of The Month, my father right away leapt in with works for me to review. Honestly, I think he was psyched that I might have something in common with him and that after years of growing up complaining about his music, I was giving it a chance. So, when I saw him recently, he piled me up with Pete Seeger albums and tribute and sent me on his way with a smile on his face. Unfortunately, having listened to a lot of Pete Seeger lately, the Pete Seeger and Carolyn Hester compilation (henceforth referred to as Seeger & Hester) is not the most compelling collection of music by Pete Seeger and I've since discovered I am not a fan of Carolyn Hester.

Pete Seeger and Carolyn Hester are American folk artists whose heyday was the 1960s. Seeger & Hester is a compilation which tries to get listeners into both artists by providing a selection of their songs. Unfortunately, the collection is hardly a "best of" of either artist and they are poor representations of some of the songs - like the overbearing back-up (audience) vocalists on Seeger's "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" sounding strangely zombie-like. And if Carolyn Hester is a great folk artist, this is a poor representation of that as almost all of the songs simply have her as a performer.

With twenty-three songs, occupying fifty-nine minutes, Seeger & Hester is split between twelve performances by Pete Seeger and eleven performances by Carolyn Hester. The artists are poorly represented for their creative talents here, though, as Seeger's dozen are all traditional songs Seeger arranged or outright covers. Most of Hester's performances are the same with Hester arranging songs in the public domain, though she did write "Jamie," which illustrates her writing ability better than anything Seeger has on the album. Both Seeger and Hester perform their own vocals and Seeger plays his banjo or guitar on each track as well. Hester is accompanied by similarly stark instruments (usually a guitar), but the liner notes do not credit her specifically with playing the songs. Neither artist was involved in the production of the album. In other words, neither Pete Seeger nor Carolyn Hester had much in the way of creative control over this compilation.

That said, the album is a lackluster collection of known, easily recognizable folk songs like "I've Been Working On The Railroad," "The Water Is Wide," and "Blue Tail Fly" (Jimmy Cracked Corn) and less recognizable songs like "Boll Weevil" and "Little Pig." There is no social agenda being promoted with this album nor any theme, so the result is an album that has a generic Americana quality to it as Seeger and Hester are largely singing about the American experience, like sharecropping, having faith and scabbing against the unions.

Pete Seeger's vocals are largely his predictable and wonderful tenor. He sings clearly and beautifully on "Boll Weevil" and "Casey Jones." His performance is exactly what one might expect from Pete Seeger; his lines are clear, he articulates wonderfully and he carries the tunes with his voice with minimal musical accompaniment. In fact, the only real divergence from that is on "Black Is The Colour." That song is produced to make it sound like it was recorded from someone listening to it on an old time radio. The song is crackly and it sounds filtered through miles and decades, which does not fit with the production of the rest of the album. Still, Seeger does not provide stories for any of the songs, so his dozen songs are clear and enjoyable.

I wish I could say the same about Carolyn Hester. Hester's vocals are some of the highest soprano vocals I've heard in recent memory and they are terrible. Hester's voice is painful to listen to as the pitch is distracting to bats and she seldom enunciates. As a result, the last half of the album is a musical sludge I dreaded wading through each of the twelve times I listened to the album. Hester's vocals are produced to be clear, but she seems to try to wow her listeners with her pitch as opposed to actually saying anything musical.

Instrumentally, the songs are stark with each artist being accompanied by a single instrument. "Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho" is the most frenetic song on the album, which has Pete Seeger strumming incredibly fast, though with only a minimal tune as a result. Far more impressive is the way he plucks his banjo on "The Fox," which has Seeger singing and playing with speed. Carolyn Hester's guitar accompaniment is more often than not drown out by her high-pitched vocals. What is audible are simple strummings that are designed to accent her vocals, though the production seldom makes that possible.

In all, these are simple folk songs and the album is musically unimpressive with few surprises and little of interest to fans of folk. There is nothing truly unique to this album and Seeger is better represented on almost every other compilation I have heard. The lack of a theme only makes this seem more generic and like a cashgrab to trade on the names Seeger and Hester. As for Carolyn Hester's part of the album, she sounds like generic folk music, save that it is less articulate than any other female folk artist I have ever heard. How does this stack up against her other works? I've no idea; this was my first experience with her works and I truly hope it shall not be repeated.

The best track is "Casey Jones," the entire last half of the album could be lost and there'd be little lost.

For other 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 check out my index page by clicking here!

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

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