Friday, January 13, 2012

Celebrations for a Grey Day - Mimi and Richard Fariña

Celebrations for a Grey Day
Mimi and Richard Fariña
Vanguard  VRS-9174

I finished reading David Hajdu's "Positively 4th Street."  Bob Dylan and Joan Baez come off rather poorly in it, particularly in comparison to the Fariñas.  Dylan is depicted as a selfish and manipulative jerk and Baez seems like a dull, judgmental narcissist.  Joan's sister, Mimi, is clearly Hajdu's favorite person in the book and his portrait of Richard is fascinating, a mixture of charm, ambition and artistic drive.  I consider Dylan a genius, but I never would want to hang out with him, but Richard Fariña seems to have been the life of the party for most of his brief lifetime.  I became interested in the Fariñas back when I was obsessed with folk-rock.  They explored it a little on their two albums.  This is their debut album.  Most people prefer the second one, "Reflections in a Crystal Wind," since it has fewer instrumentals and more of a folk-rock sound.  I prefer this one though because it has my two favorite Fariña songs, "Pack Up Your Sorrows" and "Reno Nevada."  "Pack Up Your Sorrows" is co-credited to the third Baez sister, Pauline, although according to Hajdu she did little more than contribute the title phrase which was a favorite saying of hers.  As with most of the vocal songs on the album, the lead is sung by Richard who plays dulcimer with Mimi playing guitar and singing harmony.  It is a classic folk song with a lively melody that sticks in your head and verses about the futility of running from ones troubles alternating with a chorus in which the singer offers to take your sorrows from you.  It is one of the few Fariña songs that you can imagine an old school folkie like Pete Seeger singing.  "Reno Nevada" is one of the two folk-rock songs on the album.  It features an electric guitar, bass and piano in addition to the Fariñas' acoustic guitar and dulcimer.  Fariña uses the metaphor of gambling in philosophical lyrics about life choices and taking chances.  The song was a key song in the early repertoire of Fairport Convention and there are some excellent performances of it on various archival Fairport releases, but I really like the original as well, particularly when Mimi is wailing away in the background.  Of the remaining eleven songs on the album, seven are instrumentals which seems odd considering that Richard was a poet and a professional writer before he took up music.  He certainly had no trouble coming up with words so my guess is that he wanted to show off his newly acquired instrumental prowess and with good reason.  I've never heard anyone play the dulcimer like him.  When I think of the dulcimer, I picture female country singers delicately strumming, but Richard aggressively attacks his instrument like a rock star.  Mimi is a fine acoustic guitar player and they show a lot of chemistry in their instrumental duets.  My favorite instrumental is "V." which is named after the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name (Pynchon and Fariña were close friends.)  It has a raga-like Eastern flavor and features some frenetic dulcimer playing from Richard supported by Bruce Langhorne on tambourine.  Of the remaining instrumentals I like the pretty "Dog Blue" which was arranged by Mimi and "Tommy Makem's Fantasy" which is basically the Irish tune "Little Beggarman" which appeared in vocal form on my favorite Ian and Sylvia album "Northern Journey."  The four remaining songs with vocals are all interesting.  "Michael, Andrew and James" is about the three civil rights activists, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964.  It is not as heavy-handed as many protest songs of that era and has a poetic quality to it.  Musically it is a bit of a folky drone with the dulcimer again giving it a raga flavor.  "One-Way Ticket" is the other folk-rock song on the album.  It features the same instrumentalists as "Reno Nevada" and is similar to the folk-rock songs on Dylan's "Bringing It All Back Home" which was released a few weeks prior to this album.  It is a fast-paced blues, humorously ragging on California for various reasons.  There is a nice guitar solo from Bruce Langhorne.  "Another Country" benefits from the plaintive and sensitive quality of Richard's voice as he describes traveling through Europe and North Africa while experiencing a strained love affair.  Musically it is a conventional folk song with a pretty guitar riff.  "The Falcon" is adapted from the traditional folk song "The Cuckoo."  The lyrics have been changed to make the song a graceful statement against war and the military.  In his liner notes Richard states that the song is a response to members of the John Birch Society practicing war games at Point Lobos.  The songs with vocals are so good that it makes me regret there are not more of them on this record.  It is still a fine album though, consistently engaging and inspired.  When I play it, I find myself wishing that Richard Fariña had not liked motorcycles so much.  He loved life with such zest and made such enjoyable music, Mimi Fariña's tragic loss was also a loss to anyone who appreciates intelligence in music.  Recommended to Ian and Sylvia fans.

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