Monday, February 2, 2015

Inauspicious Start: Lightfoot! Introduces Me To Gordon Lightfoot (My February 2015 Artist Of The Month)!

The Good: Good voice, Wonderful lyrics
The Bad: Utterly unmemorable instrumental accompaniment, SHORT!
The Basics: Lightfoot! was the first major release for Canadian Folk singer Gordon Lightfoot and it’s not a bad debut, though it is a bit short and unmemorable.

Ironically, for the year’s shortest month, I have chosen an Artist Of The Month with one of the longest careers of any I have taken on in my musical studies. I chose Gordon Lightfoot because my musical education is much weaker in classic Folk music than I would like and, living in Michigan for the past two and a half years, I am inundated with Country music, so I figure opening up to more classic Folk is at least likely to make me closer to conversational about music with people around me. Around the turn of the Millennium, there was a rap artist who worked Gordon Lightfoot’s song “Sundown” into his rap and it’s hard to deny that Gordon Lightfoot is cool. And with the death of Pete Seeger last year, Gordon Lightfoot is now the oldest Folk singer-songwriter still performing (he has two years on Joan Baez).

What surprised me was that Gordon Lightfoot had over a decade of recordings before “Sundown.” Given that I could only name two Lightfoot songs before I started studying him as my Artist Of The Month, I figured he was a good subject for my month’s music. Lightfoot! is not, technically, his debut album. Instead, Lightfoot! is the first major studio recording by Gordon Lightfoot, released by United Artists in 1966 (though it was recorded over a year prior).

With fourteen songs, clocking out at 39:01, perhaps the biggest strike against Lightfoot! is that it is short. For a debut album, it is impressive that eleven of the songs were written and composed by Lightfoot himself. The other three are cover songs that he did not write or co-write. Lightfoot provides all of the lead vocals on Lightfoot! and he provides the lead guitars and occasional piano. Lightfoot is not credited as a producer on Lightfoot!, which makes sense given that it is his first major studio release.

The only other real strike against Lightfoot! is Gordon Lightfoot’s instrumental accompaniment. Lightfoot! is an exceptionally simple album, musically. Lightfoot is pretty much the master of the “one man and a guitar” sound on Lightfoot! (he is, at most accompanied by another guitar and a bass on any of the tracks). Perhaps the reason a neophyte to Gordon Lightfoot’s works would be underwhelmed by Lightfoot! is that none of the songs have a strong melody (though “For Lovin’ Me” sounds so perfectly like what one expects from a folk song!). After listening to Lightfoot! eight times now, if someone were to play a Muzak version of any of the songs on the album (without lyrics), I would never be able to identify them as either from this album or a distinctive Gordon Lightfoot song. The album does not sound bad, but the emphasis is so strongly on the vocals and the lyrics that the instrumental accompaniment is so simple and underdeveloped that it becomes indistinct.

Vocally, Gordon Lightfoot illustrates decent lung capacity on Lightfoot!. On songs like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Lightfoot sings with passion and really holds his notes for a decent stretch. The impressive aspect of Lightfoot’s vocals on such songs is how many of the notes in a row he holds; in creating a contemplative, somewhat sad, mood, Lightfoot stretches out the notes a decent amount. It’s a feat to do that note after note after note! Vocally, Lightfoot sings smoothly and passionately throughout Lightfoot!.

What made me a little sad about Lightfoot! was that when it came time to think about the superlative track, I realized the song that affected me most was one of the three songs that Lightfoot had not written. But when Lightfoot sings “Passions will part to a warm melody / As fires will sometimes turn cold / Like petals in the wind / We're puppets to the silver strings of souls / Of changes / Your tears will be trembling now we're somewhere else / One last cup of wine we will pour / I'll kiss you one more time / And leave you on the rolling river shore / Of changes” (“Changes”), he has something to say and he says it so well! Phil Ochs wrote “Changes” and, inspired by listening to the song, I looked into him and I suspect even Lightfoot would be happy with the idea that I’m calling “Changes” the best song on the album (man, Phil Ochs had a terribly sad life!).

In the true fashion of classic Folk, several of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs are musical storysongs. Lightfoot sings about the desire to escape back to nature on the musical storysong with “Sixteen Miles (To Seven Lakes).” His musical protagonist has a goal, a backstory and a motivation, making for a very satisfying musical storysong. Over the course of the song, the narrator makes the journey: “Somewhere on the mountain I'll take another name / Rid my mind of memories and start my life again / Somewhere in the wilderness / I'll build a cabin small / Then forget so I / Won't remember you at all” (“Sixteen Miles (To Seven Lakes)”).

The new anthem around my home might well become Gordon Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin’” (which is a close second to “Changes” for superlative song on the album). Despite having the simple rhymes “But still I won't deny or mistreat you / Baby if you let me have my way / I'm not sayin' I'll be sorry / For all the things that I might say that make you cry / I can't say I'll always do / The things you want me to / I'm not sayin' I'll be true but I'll try” (“I’m Not Sayin’”), Lightfoot has a universal message that can be understood by anyone who has ever been married!

For those not familiar with my ratings, I have a pretty strict set of criteria for my ratings; Lightfoot! is pretty solidly in the “average” rating, but the duration does not make great use of the c.d. medium and instrumentally, it is not strong enough to drive it up. To be clear, I liked Lightfoot! and it is making me excited for the month of exploring the works of Gordon Lightfoot, but I’m pretty sure there are c.d.s that put Lightfoot! with at least one other album on a single disc and that would be what I would recommend.

The best song is “Changes,” “Long River” might be the weak track as it left no impression on me whatsoever.

For other, prior, Artist Of The Month reviews, please check out my reviews of:
American Folk Ballads - Pete Seeger
Album 1700 - Peter, Paul, And Mary
Remember - Janis Ian


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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