Friday, June 10, 2011

Pete Is A (Technically) Good Collection Of Pete Seeger's (And Adapted) Works.

The Good: Good vocals, Wonderful multicultural themes, Duration, Moments of instrumental accompaniment.
The Bad: Not all original Seeger works, Lack of spark
The Basics: After a series of agonizing reversals, I am forced to admit that Pete is a good album on the technical merits, but is boring to listen to.

Sometimes, I find myself feeling an odd pressure to justify why I am not rating something high as opposed to leaving readers with an impression that a musical work truly earned its high praise. That is, oddly, where I find myself as I consider the album Pete, by Pete Seeger. This is good folk music, but there is just something about it that does not resonate with me . . . and I am a fan of folk-rock music.

Pete is the latest in a series of Pete Seeger albums I am listening to as I selected Pete Seeger as my Artist Of The Month. Having heard Seeger growing up and having a strong appreciation for his music and themes, I figured Seeger would have been a great chance for me to expand my appreciation of folk music as an adult, as well as perhaps offer myself something more to bond with my father about (he raised me on Seeger, Guthrie and Baez). But now, as I listen to Pete for the eighth time, I find myself struggling to find a way to express how or why I am underwhelmed with this Pete Seeger album. And it's not that the album is bad, but I know that I am not adding it to my collection and I cannot figure out why others might enjoy it, even though the lyrics are good, the vocals are decent and the message is impressive.

With eighteen songs, occupying 63:40, Pete is credited as the work of Pete Seeger and Friends. This is a fairly full album with Pete Seeger performing a decent variety of folk songs, several of which are recognizable Seeger's with new arrangements. So, for example, the Weavers' song "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" is presented on Pete with Seeger leading a full choir in a musically rich new interpretation of the classic song. I'm sure if I had been more versed in Seeger's works before listening to this album, I would also appreciate "River Of My People" more than I did before I heard it here, but it still resonates on Pete.

Pete is largely the works of Pete Seeger presented by the singer-songwriter himself. He wrote nine of the songs on his own, as well as adding lyrics, music or selected lines to all of the remaining songs. In fact, the least creative influence that Seeger has over any of the songs is his arranging "How Can I Keep From Singing" and "Russian Song/Ode To Joy." Considering how little creativity so many contemporary artists have these days, that's not bad at all! Pete Seeger provides all of the lead vocals as well as playing at least one instrument on each track. He is not credited with any production credit for the album, but considering his stature and the extent of his liner notes in the c.d., it is hard to imagine this is not the musical vision Seeger himself intended to deliver.

Vocally, what differentiates Pete - ironically enough - from other Pete Seeger albums is the presence of other vocalists. On thirteen of the songs, Seeger is accompanied by one of three choruses. So, for example, on "Huddie Ledbetter Was A Helluva Man" has Seeger providing the unique stanzas with the Union Baptist Church Singers accompanying him on the refrain with simple repetition. This actually has the feel of being the musical equivalent of a Baptist sermon (with the congregants shouting out the "amens" and the like) or a revival service in the Deep South. This contrasts nicely with "The Water Is Wide" where the Gaudeamus vocal ensemble leads Pete Seeger in the entire song. Gaudeamus drowns out Seeger if he is singing alongside them; he performs the final stanza alone and accompanies the vocal ensemble with his guitar throughout the track. This song has the feeling of being a hymn performed in a giant cathedral.

Perhaps that is why I am so lukewarm to this album; unlike every other Pete Seeger album, this one has a gospel resonance as opposed to a folk vibe. The rendition of "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" has a gospel feel to it and it lacks the passion that other versions of it I've heard (including live when I was a kid) possess. The closest to folk the vocals which have Seeger accompanied by any of the backing choirs gets is on the wonderful song "All Mixed Up." There the Gaudeamus ensemble is funkier with their accenting vocals on the refrain. As well, on that track Seeger's 12-string seems to be produced forward so it leaps in front of the chorus, giving the piece more accent on the instrumental music as opposed to the vocal accompaniment. It is also one of the more up-tempo songs on Pete.

Because so many of the tracks have choral accompaniments, Seeger's few solo tracks, like "Sailing Down My Golden River" have a more stark quality to them. Outside the lonely lyrics, Seeger's voice sounds at-best at-par with his guitar and while it contrasts well the other songs, the five songs that have Seeger alone with his guitar seem out of place on the album.

Generally, the album sounds musically rich, most likely due to the vocal accompaniment. Still, several of the tracks that include the choruses have other instrumental accompaniment, like "Well May The World Go" having Seeger's banjo joined by a second banjo, a bass and a triangle. As is the case with all (that I've found) Pete Seeger works, the album has no real percussion accompaniment and as a result, the banjo drives the beats and keeps Seeger singing in time with himself. Still, "All Mixed Up" is credited with having a lone percussionist, but after so many listens, I've heard the mandolin, pennywhistle and bass, but not any form of drums. For contrast to the rich vocals and instrumentals when Seeger is performing with others, Pete Seeger performs his song "Living In The Country," which has him on his guitar, whistling. The song has no lyrics, but it is evocative of a trip through winding grassy roads in the sunshine and the song has an energy many of the other pieces lack.

As I wrote that last line, I realized why I'm wrestling so much with Pete. The chorus singers, the accompaniment when it is not just Pete Seeger, they make the album sound strangely formal. There is no passion or sense of energy on the album. Even "Garbage" sounds remarkably stiff and as I considered how "Living In The Country" made images in my mind, I realized that "stiff" is what most of the album made me feel. It has a formality to it and the lack of spontaneity that Seeger's storysongs have make one feel like they are listening to the album in a cathedral and if they cough they will be glared at by an angry nun. I'm not so much for the stiffness or formality and I suspect that most Pete Seeger fans will not like that as well.

Ultimately, my rating came down to a cointoss and it deserves more of an explanation than most of my evaluations. I considered that many of my reactions to Pete were based on emotional reactions, some of which simply come from the Gospel sound to many of the tracks and the ultimate realization that I felt there was a stiffness to the overall album. I figured this album was a 7/10 on the technical aspects, but I was bored with it in a way that I usually reserve for albums more in the 4 range. So, it’s hard for me to recommend the album, though technically it is good. While this might seem a real roundabout way of reviewing this album, it expresses the conflict of listening to Pete; it is musically rich, but boring, it has progressive themes which are sublimated to instrumental accompaniment that sound Classical, and while it interprets Pete Seeger's folk songs, it doesn't have a folk vibe or a cohesive theme.

The best track is the multicultural understanding anthem "All Mixed Up," the low point is the unmemorable "Natural History (Spider's Web)."

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)


For other music reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject for an organized listing!

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

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