Sunday, October 16, 2005

CDs: Dolly Parton and the Cowboy Junkies

We'd already intended to note Dolly Parton's Those Were The Days after noting last week that the promotional single for it qualified as the worst single of the year. Then Kat filled in for C.I. at The Common Ills and noted that The Laura Flanders Show would have the Cowboy Junkies on Saturday night to discuss their new anti-war CD Early 21st Century Blues. So we figured we'd take a crack at both of them. We includes Jim, Dona, Ty, Jess and Ava of The Third Estate Sunday Review, Elaine of Like Maria Said Paz, Cedric of Cedric's Big Mix, Rebecca of Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude, Betty of Thomas Friedman is a Great Man, Kat of Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills), Mike of Mikey Likes It!, and C.I. of both The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review as well as, for the first time helping us out, Wally of the brand new The Daily Jot. We're not doing this in transcript form. The reason being that this took place in two discussions. Cedric and Betty participated in the first but had to bail to get sleep before heading to church and Wally joined for the second.

We'll start off with Parton. We said last week that we expected to enjoy the album (despite dubbing the CD single the worst of the year) and our hunch was right. Kat noted that Parton appeared to be framing the album as a flashback by opening with "Those Were The Days." The standout tracks for us were many. "Both Sides Now" is done much faster than most are prepared for but C.I. noted that on the first "that I recall" Parton's one of the few performers who's done the song since Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell (Mitchell wrote it, Collins had the hit with it) that gets the notes right on that phrase. Joining Parton on this song is, in fact, Judy Collins. (Along with Rhonda Vincent.) Betty noted "Imagine" and how much she enjoyed the call and response in the last third of the song. With that song, along with the rest, Parton puts her own individual stamp on the recordings. This isn't a carbon copy, watered down imitation.
This is Parton taking songs that are famous (many that are in the popular music canon) and making them her own. "Me and Bobby McGee" (sung with writer Kris Kristofferson) is a perfect example. Parton's not trying to be Janis Joplin, she's trying to find her own way into the song and succeeds wonderfully. This may be one of the standout tracks for Parton fans because she (and the muscians) get to cut loose on this song. "Crimson & Clover" is another song that will please due to the high energy.

Part of the reason she succeeds in these cover versions is because she's not trying to imitate the original recordings. Instead, she's giving them the blue grass treatment. Others may be familiar with that sort of treatment of the twelve songs on this album. We weren't and we found it revolutionary. Another reason she succeeds is because Parton knows how to sing. She knows when to get soft, she knows when to get loud, she knows when to tweak a line with good humor and when to shade it. She's one of the best singers because she serves the song.

As a much covered songwriter herself, she's no doubt heard her own songs damaged by others. That may account for why she's always working to find what the song is saying and what makes it special as opposed to bowling you over with her high notes or how long she can hold a note. Or maybe it's because, as she notes in linear notes, it's because these songs are songs she's enjoyed for a long time and ones that have touched her.

Regardless of why, she does a beautiful job of recasting the songs and bringing to them new insight. Last Sunday, Kat told us that she bet Dolly would sing "harmonica" and not "harp" in her cover of "Me and Bobby McGee" and Dolly does use "harmonica." Kat's reason for guessing that was that Dolly Parton wants to communicate and move people. Kat was right about harmonica and listening to the CD we'd say she was right about Parton wanting to communicate and move. There are no bad cuts here. There's no reason to grab the remote and skip a track or to program the player to avoid one. This is an artist at work, moving you with her gift and commenting not just on songs that moved her but on the world we're living in. With Christmas just around the corner, we'd suggest you buy yourself a copy and listen to see if it doesn't make for a strong gift.

The Cowboy Junkies? Betty and Cedric both complained about their version of "I Don't Want To Be A Solider" by John Lennon. Betty's not a big fan of rap, Cedric is. But both felt Rebel's rap hurt the song more than it helped it. The song has a quiet hypnotic feel as done by the Junkies then Rebel stomps in. Cedric questioned why, after countless bedroom whisper raps by L.L. Cool Jay, Rebel didn't choose a similar approach? The song's a strange mix and some will enjoy it, other's won't.

That's the only complaint that we had regarding the album. When Wally joined us, he'd just finished listening to the CD. He enjoyed "I Don't Want To Be A Solider" but hadn't heard Betty & Cedric's criticsm. Having heard it, he said he could see their point but that the track remains one of his favorites and that he feels Rebel's rap adds to the album.

If you ever enjoyed the Cowboy Junkies, this is the album to get. Kicking off with Dylan's "License To Kill," the Junkies find the groove and don't let go. The rich textures of their strongest tracks are evident throughout the entire album. Rebecca says if there was a Rock 'n Roll Church to go with the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, the Cowboy Junkies would perform early morning services with this lineup. When Kat sent out the cry for everyone to try to grab up a copy of this CD (sent out the cry Saturday afternoon) there were some grumblings. Elaine felt that she'd been burned by the Junkies in the past with albums that featured four or five key songs and then seemed to run out of steam. Early 21st Century Blues won her over and she feels it's like sitting at a table up front in a small club while the Junkies are on fire and hitting all the right notes.

Jess noted the guitar work (Michael Timmins) on "Two Soldiers" as a stand out with "You're Missing" as a close runner up. Bruce Springsteen fan Mike felt that the Junkies actually improved on Springsteen's version of "You're Missing." One thing that stood out to him was the conversational style of Margo Timmins singing. On The Laura Flanders Show Saturday night, Margo Timmins spoke of the shock it must be getting the news that someone you loved had just died in Iraq and how, if it were, she might be thinking that morning before the news came in, how he always left his shoes lying in the hall. Her singing on this song perfectly captures the quiet moments that emerge in the face of shocking news.

Dona and Ava, who've been on their own music education experience for about a year now, were especially impressed with the cover of Richie Havens "Handouts In The Rain." They feel that it's rare someone manages to match the ache in one of Havens' mournful vocals but that it's done here. We all agreed that at a time when Bono seems determined to write off U2 and music, the Cowboy Junkies bring new life to "One." It provides the perfect note for the CD to go out on.

The Cowboy Junkies would prefer that if you order online, you order the album through their website. (You can also purchase Dolly Parton's Those Were The Days online at Sugar Hill Records.) Possibly, like us, you'll prefer to rush out and get them both.

We think that they make a great companion set. We also are glad to see artists who are willing to do more than go around blathering about the fun in washing out Lance Armstrong's dirty briefs while offering banal crap like "Where Has All The Love Gone" (the ", man" -- as C.I. noted -- is implied). These are strong statements from artists who are trying to create something a little deeper than "Good Is Good" ("and bad is bad"). As this country approaches the third year anniversary of the invasion in March, we're still amazed by how so few "artists" seem to have been effected in any way, shape or form. (Maybe they're trying, like Carole King with the altering of the lyrics to "Sweet Seasons," not to offend the politicians?)

Art is supposed to reflect life, it's supposed to comment on the world around us. So it's more than surprising to us that so few have cared to even dip a toe in the water of current events. Lot of Petulia Clarks cautioning "Don't Sleep In The Subway" but not a lot of people asking "What's Going On?" One song is enjoyable kitsch while the other is art. History and legacies aren't made, people aren't remembered, by standing quietly on the sidelines. That's a lesson that's lost on too many of "artists" today. Fortunately, Dolly Parton and the Cowboy Junkies aren't afraid to weigh in.

Both do it via albums of covers (Michael Timmins wrote "December Skies" and "This World Dreams Of" on Early 21st Century Blues, the other nine tracks are covers). If someone feels they can't write something strong (the Rolling Stones wrote two strongs commenting on the occupation on A Bigger Bang), than they shouldn't. But instead of putting the listener to sleep with bad rhymes and really obvious imagery ("rolling thunder"), they can find a song written by someone else. The Junkies and Parton are weighing in on the world around them. That alone should peek your interest. The fact that these are also two solid CDs should make you think about purchasing them.

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