Sunday, July 10, 2011

In His Grandfatherly Way, Pete Seeger Entertains On At 89.

The Good: Good vocals, Good social message
The Bad: Instrumental accompaniment is a bit simple, Stories replay poorly.
The Basics: A creative and contemporary outing by Pete Seeger, At 89 is worth picking up, even if it will sound remarkably familiar to fans of Pete Seeger and friends.

One of the things I've learned quite quickly as a result of doing my monthly Artist Of The Month immersions is that the more experience one has with an artist, the easier it is to determine what their average sound is. As a result, some albums which may sound more impressive to those who only encounter the one recording sound more mundane to those who have followed an artist for some time or immerse themselves in an artist, as I have done with my July Artist Of The Month, Pete Seeger. I preface my review of At 89 with that note because it is entirely possible that those who have not heard much of Pete Seeger's music might enjoy the album a lot more than I did.

However, as I have been immersed in the works of Pete Seeger, At 89 strikes me as a very average album, both by Pete Seeger and by any folk artist. This is not to say it is bad at all, but it leaves little impression and it bears more of the conceits one would expect from a Pete Seeger album than truly give the listener something new. That said, the album is a live performance of Pete Seeger that captures well the feeling of being at one of Seeger's concerts. This includes audience participation and a few interstitials from Pete Seeger explaining the origins of some of the songs. Ironically, some of the stories are simply repeated under the relevant track listings in the liner notes, so in some ways there is the sense that the producers are filling the album up more than offering an incredible musical experience.

With thirty-two tracks, twenty-five of which are actually songs, At 89 is one of the newer albums that actually showcases more of Seeger's newer works. Of the twenty-five songs, Seeger wrote nine of the songs on his own and co-wrote most of the others. This album is light on traditional folk songs that are more universally known - "The Water Is Wide" is the only one that stands out to me - and before several of the songs, Seeger talks about organizations he is involved with and social causes he supports, like keeping public parks in public hands as opposed to selling them off. Seeger sings almost all of the primary vocals, though "It's A Long Haul" is essentially a duet. As well, Seeger performs on either banjo or guitar on each of the songs, though this album has him backed by several other musicians. Pete Seeger is credited as a co-producer, so this album is inarguably his musical vision at age eighty-nine. That musical vision packs 64:38 onto the compact disc and that's better than most new artists.

And it's a decent musical vision. Seeger sings about the environment and labor conditions ("Throw away That Shad Net (How Are We Gonna Save Tomorrow?)") and he works to provide a different perspective on american history with "The First Settlers." He preaches peace, love and happiness on "We Will Love Or We Will Perish" and he encourages world peace by singing a cover of "If This World Survives." Thematically, At 89 has a very classic folk approach and Pete Seeger is just the man to present such an album.

On At 89, Seeger continues to deliver his vocals in a flawless tenor voice. On some of the songs, his voice gets a little saltier, but for the most part, his vocals are clear, perfectly articulated and illustrate a mastery of the tenor range. Moreover, when he presents musical storysongs, like on "The First Settlers," he uses his voice to enchant the audience and it works perfectly; he has a spellbinding voice that is emotive and wonderful.

Unfortunately, Seeger's vocals are not the only ones on the album and the chorus that accompanies him on "Wonderful Friends" and "Or Else! (One Of These Days)" can be overwhelming at times. The mixed chorus is produced in front of Seeger's vocals and sometimes they create a vocal monotony. This does not help when the songs are repetitive and after only a few listens, it is easy for the listener to get "I owe a lot to the sharing, caring, daring, wonderful friends that I know" ("Wonderful Friends") stuck in their head as a result.

On the plus side, At 89 is timely. On "Or Else! (One Of These Days)," Seeger argues for equal voting rights for all (well, actually counting all of the ballots), diplomacy and funding education over weaponry. The songs are catchy and those looking for something new in folk music, this is a good outing.

Unfortunately, it is also very average, especially for Pete Seeger. Seeger's one-man-and-a-banjo routine is flawless, but it is also musically uninteresting. Seeger keeps alive the musical roots of folk, but he is not evolving with the times to keep folk alive and auditorily interesting. The result is something that sounds a lot like many of his other works, especially those that he shares the stage with other vocalists on. At least this one has more of his creative juices flowing.

That makes it very easy to recommend to fans of folk music. And for those who have not heard the music of Pete Seeger before, this is a great way to get into him, even if his background vocalists are overbearing on some songs.

The best track is "The First Settlers," (big points to Seeger for making a song out of a town ordinance on "If It Can't Be Reduced") I could have lived without the interstitial stories as they drag upon relistening to this album many times.

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 1
American Favorite Ballads, Volume 5
Seeger & Hester


For other music reviews, my index page on the subject is available here!

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

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