Nov/Dec 1999 Music Review

The FolkScene Collection, Volume Two

Various Artists
Copyright October, 1999
Red House Records

reviewed by Tom Dooley

Being a fan of folk music, I was predisposed to like this follow-up to the first FolkScene Collection. This and the first volume feature songs from the longest running live music radio show in Los Angeles, spanning nearly thirty years and featuring a who's who list of singer/songwriters. And for the most part, my expectations were met and exceeded. It's hard not to like a cd packed with near-perfectly mastered live music by the likes of Tom Waits, Nanci Griffith, and Lucinda Williams. To mention those three names only scratches the surface of the talent represented here. There's Greg Brown, Patty Larkin, and Stan Rogers. There's Vince Gill and Jim Lauderdale. There are names not so recognizable but that resonate with talent, like Stephen Fearing, Peter Case, Eliza Gilkyson, Tom Russell and Chris Hillman (who as one of the original Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers is probably the biggest "name" on the album). They all play guitar. They all have distinctive voices. They're all captured live on-the-air in a way that demands I use words like "warm" and "intimate" as descriptors. Good, good stuff.

On the first track, from a 1988 show, Nanci Griffith sings "Love at the Five and Dime." It's a song that Griffith wrote and that Kathy Mattea had turned into a country hit two years earlier. Here the song takes on a deeper meaning as Griffith dedicates it to Howard and Roz Larman, the couple who started FolkScene as newlyweds back in 1969.

From there, the songs just keep coming. My favorite tracks are Waits' "The Heart of Saturday Night," recorded in 1975, Eliza Gilkyson's "Take Off Your Old Coat," and Greg Brown's "I'm This Blue," the latter two coming from more recent, 1997 shows. My friend Bill thinks Jim Lauderdale's "Planet of Love" is the "coolest song" he's ever heard. Vince Gill sounds incredible on "Good Woman's Love," recorded way back in 1978.

One thing I like about this album is that in spite of being a compilation of very different artists over the course of three decades, it has a continuity or unity that keeps me interested in the cd as a whole. At the same time, each song and each voice is so distinct that they would never start to run together, even for non-folk-listening people who might ordinarily complain that folk music "all sounds the same."

I have only three criticisms to make. First, I'm not sure why Chris Hillman's "Mr. Tambourine Man" is on this album. I mean, it sounds great and all, and yes it was the song that was probably most responsible for putting Hillman in the history books. But a Dylan/Byrds song seems out of place when everyone else is singing more obscure, self-written tunes. It's a little like bringing Oreos (or to be fair, something more upscale--say, Pepperidge Farms white chocolate macadamia nut) to a holiday cookie exchange.

Second complaint is that Patty Larkin's "Justine" generally rubs me wrong. I like Larkin as a singer and as a songwriter, but the lyrics of this song are lame. They are the confessional of a woman who finds herself looking back on her life and feeling unfulfilled. She apparently blames her parents, saying "it was their dream, but it's my life now." She's unhappy with her husband. "Well now me and my husband Johnny get along okay. I'm at the bar all night and he's down at work all day." Turns out that she doesn't have too much in her life that she feels good about. "Well, I got my little baby, she means the world to me, and I got my El Dorado and I got the deep blue sea." These lines not only sound dumb, but they get me angry at a whiny, self-pitying woman who doesn't seem capable of taking responsibility for her own unhappiness.

My last beef is minor. Stan Rogers' "Song of the Cradle" is the last track on the album, and it's a fine song, but it's not exactly uplifting. The great thing about folk music is that it runs the gamet of emotions. I just think that it would be better to end on a more upbeat note than "Tonight I have burned all the candles, leaving only ashes in their wake. And at times I get so hard to handle, 'cause simple songs leave me behind: they all have taken wing, and I'm left alone to hear the song a lonely candle sings." It makes sense to have these be the last words on an album of great, simple songs, but it also leaves me ready to go stick my head in a microwave.

Luckily there are plenty of songs on this album that uplift the spirit, so what I usually do instead of going for the microwave is hit play and listen to the FolkScene Collection again. It rates a groovy factor of four and a half out of five. And I'm only holding back on that half a groove out of sheer pickiness over the above-mentioned concerns. I look forward to volume three. In fact, I'd love to see ten or twelve more volumes.


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