The Good: One or two good songs, Some decent lyrics, Moments of vocal presentation
The Bad: Some real musical lemons, Some dull lyrics, Vocally homogenous
The Basics: Putumayo's American Folk is more dull than inspiring and it holds up poorly over multiple listens.
When I do a search for new artists at my local library, I often find obscure and interesting musical compilation albums that include those artists. That is how I came to find, listen to and review, Mary Had A Little Amp when searching for Madonna and Saturday Morning Cartoons Greatest Hits songs when searching for Liz Phair. So, when I was learning more about Natalie Merchant recently, I was unsurprised when Putumayo Presents American Folk came up as one of the options. I picked it up and now, I'm sorry (outside the social causes that the c.d. purchase supposedly supports) that I did.
With twelve tracks clocking in at over forty-eight minutes, American Folk is a compilation of songs that have the flavor of American folk emotion or folk storytelling. Each track is performed by a different musical artist with all but three of the songs written by the artists who performed them. Nanci Griffith performed Bob Dylan's "Boots Of Spanish Leather," which did not so much grab me. Ironically, singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant chose to reinterpret the traditional song "Owensboro" and Elizabeth Mitchell and Daniel Littleton performed "Jubilee," also a classical folk song. For the most part, though, these are new tracks that illustrate a strong sense of what folk-rock music is.
As a result, most of the tracks are musically stark with performers playing on a guitar with minimal accompaniment by percussion or production elements. The vocal presentations almost homogeneously drown out the instrumentals. There are a few exceptions. For example, "I Had Something" by Lucy Kaplansky - who I just discovered on an album called Cry Cry Cry, reviewed here! - has a musically richer sound that includes a more active percussion section and more of an electric sound than an acoustic. She also indulges in background vocals that lead to more of a complete and rock edge than the other tracks, which tread toward folk more than even folk-rock. Similarly, Patty Griffin turns the instrumentals on the ear by actually including some brass on her otherwise tiresome "Rowing Song."
This is not to say that the album is bad. However, there is only so much guitar plucking one can here and not get bored by it and listening to American Folk over and over again, it gets somewhat tiresome in instrumentals. Virtually all of the songs have moments where is sounds like the performer is adding the percussion by strumming, then smacking their guitar, which is pretty common in folk-rock (and bluegrass and some country). Peter Mulvey's "Shirt" then musically sounds similar to Josh Ritter's "You Don't Make It Easy Babe." They are both fine songs (well, "Shirt" is a little dull) but musically, they are very similar.
In the same way, the vocals on American Folk quickly get tiresome. All of the women on this album seem to want to be Joan Baez and some of their presentations - especially as they reach for the higher registers - are just plain terrible. So, for example, while "Pour" might be so lyrically, vocally, and musically bland that I have no memory of it after nine listens to this entire album, "Boots Of Spanish Leather" is downright painful to listen to as performed by Nanci Griffith on this album. She opens with a decent enough voice, but as the song goes on, she adds a drawl to it that is awkward and seems more like a poor affectation than a real emotional resonance for the performer.
But this track follows four tracks where the female vocalists are presenting Strong Woman vocals. There's a style I'm calling Strong Woman where it is a clear articulation of lyrics (of middling quality and/or emotion) that are presented in a vocally forceful way as if to say, "The woman who is singing this is so strong and admirable!" I love, for those who do not follow my reviews, female singer-songwriters. They are my favorite musicians, but the ones I like most have real emotion in their music and their vocal presentations accent the lyrics, not themselves. All of the female vocalists on American Folk present their songs in virtually the same way, where they appear to be selling themselves rather than telling their stories. Opening with the screechy tones of Shannon McNally's "Pale Moon" through Natalie Merchant's cover of "Owensboro," the vocals are almost homogeneously disappointing and bland. With Griffith, this is something of a hyperbole as the song goes on and she sings eventually in an almost monotone on "Boots Of Spanish Leather."
This is not to say the male artists get away with anything worthwhile on the album. They are equally guilty of being musically boring in a "I'm a good, non-threatening guy" way. They have quiet vocals with the best songs being the ones that tell stories, like Josh Ritter's song about an abusive relationship ("You Don't Make It Easy Babe") and the excessively wordy "Judge Not Your Brother" by Eric Bibb. But, like the women on American Folk, the men seem to present their songs in a similar fashion to one another. In this case, it is a homogenous straightforward vocal style that tells the story they are singing without any real expression of range. It's easygoing, nonthreatening, light male vocals.
What does stand out and make this album worth perhaps a single listen are the lyrics. American Folk does capture some decent singer-songwriters presenting interesting and enjoyable poetic lines. So, for example, on my favorite track, "You Don't Make It Easy Babe," Josh Ritter explores the somewhat dangerous side of the relationship he is singing about with lines like, "Your friends ask about me you say I can be found / With the cheap romance novels with their spines battered down / Oh the heart has no bones you say so it won't break / But the purpose of loving is the pounding it takes / ... The ropes that have bound me leave no marks by their knots / And though they're your hair that don't mean I'm not caught / I know the song of the handcuffs as they scrape across the floor / But that new thing you've got I've got no clue what it's for / I'm trying hard to love you – you don't make it easy Babe."
And "I Had Something" has Lucy Kaplansky pouring her heart out with lines like, "I had something / It fell from me / Something strong / Like a pounding drum / Like ringing bells / When I was young / I had something / And it was gone / I had something / Made me walk all night / Made me run from home / Made me fight / ... Made me feel alone / Like an orphan / Waiting for a home." She is remarkably emotionally articulate and the song works well on the lyrical front.
American Folk has a decent mix of the storytelling and the straightforwardly emotional with little in between. And not all of the songs are great. "Judge Not Your Brother" has a wonderful theme, but it is amelodic and pretty much a straightforward conversation between two people about one who chooses to live in poverty and the other who has misjudged him. It's a decent song the first time around for the novelty of it, but upon further listens it's just tiresome and barely a song. The musical moralization does not hold up well over more listens.
Similarly, while there is much to admire about "Rowing Song," the repetition of "row" and the rhymes with "go" are not the principle things. Instead, they are tired and hypnotic and one wonders why she didn't strive for more lyrically.
Overall, the album falls short of being anything worth owning. It is utterly average in many ways and it fails to come together in a way that will excite the ear or any other part of the listener.
The best track is "You Don't Make It Easy Babe," the low point is the nasal presentation of "Boots Of Spanish Leather."
For other folk albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Honesty Room - Dar Williams
Any Day Now - Joan Baez
American Industrial Ballads (Boxed Set) – Pete Seeger
For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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