Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Colours of the Dawn - The Johnstons

Colours of the Dawn
The Johnstons 
Vanguard VSD 6572

I bought this about a year ago in a Pasadena record store.  This is the 1971 American release of the 1970 British album on Transatlantic Records that features a different cover, a different running order and one less song than the Vanguard version.  This was their fifth album overall and their second American release.  This group's career trajectory is emblematic of the weirdness of the 1960s.  They were originally a family group performing traditional Irish folk music that gradually moved into contemporary folk and pop music ultimately recording a song supporting Angela Davis, the lead track on this album -- talk about your long, strange trips!  Along the way the band shed Johnstons until Adrienne Johnston was the only Johnston left and acquired new members  Mick Moloney and Paul Brady.  Perhaps the key figure in this album is the producer Chris McCloud, who was Adrienne's husband and who wrote or co-wrote several songs on the album including "Angela Davis."  McCloud was an American who took over the management of the group and supposedly exploited them to achieve his own financial and artistic ambitions.  He was reportedly a rather nefarious, almost sinister figure who has even been accused of being responsible for his wife's premature death in 1981.  He has been blamed for Moloney's departure from the band after this album and Brady has subsequently made disparaging remarks about him as well.  The album opens with "Angela Davis" which is a heavy handed protest song.  In his liner notes McCloud connects the song to the Irish tradition of rebellion songs, but I suspect it has more to do with McCloud seeking publicity and perhaps a connection to the radical left in the United States.  The group's vocal is very stirring though and they sing it like they mean it.  Gordon Lightfoot's "If I Could" is more satisfying to me with some enjoyable guitar picking in the solos and a wistful vocal from Moloney.  McCloud and Brady's "I'll Be Gone In the Morning" sounds very West Coast folk-rock, Brady's lead vocal and Johnston's harmony vocal reminds me a bit of the latter day Youngbloods or Moby Grape and the rich instrumental backing of the song is exactly why folk-rock was invented, it adds intensity and propulsion to the song.  The group's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" is faithful to the original with a lovely, muted vocal from Johnston and a dense acoustic guitar sound in the backing track. The side ends with "Aiseiri" which was not on the English version of this album.  It is another protest song co-written by Johnston, McCloud and Moloney.  The title is an Irish word meaning something like to rise again as in revival or resurrection.  McCloud says it meants "uprising" as in "a day of reckoning for The Man" and the lyrics address international revolution from Chile to Rome to Chicago with lots of pointed digs at American imperialism and the Presidency, McCloud has a pretty big axe to grind.  Although the lyrics are overtly polemical, there is some poetic imagery and Moloney's vocal is so passionate that I find the song quite powerful especially since it is coupled to an anthemic, traditional style tune.  It is one of the best songs on the record for me.  Side two opens with McCloud and Brady's "Colours of the Dawn" which is an anti-war song.  Like most of McCloud's lyrics, the song is melodramatic and heavy-handed.  It sounds like a traditional song though, particularly in Moloney's mandolin lines.  Peggy Seeger's "Hello Friend" deals with racism and labor struggles.  It is the folkiest song on the record, with its multi-part vocal harmonies it reminds me a bit of the Seekers.  Brady's "Brightness, She Came" is more in a contemporary vein.  Freed from McCloud's heaviness he delivers a jazzy, impressionistic song reminiscent of Nick Drake or Tim Buckley.  It is another one of my favorites.  Johnston sings lead on McCloud's "Crazy Anne" which is a gentle hippie anti-conformity and escapism type song.  In his notes McCloud suggests that the song is about Adrienne Johnston.  The side concludes with Ian Campbell's "The Old Man's Tale" which is another traditional sounding song which chronicles working class struggles against fascism and labor oppression through the 20th Century.  It is an impressive song with some wonderful guitar/mandolin interplay.  I'm a big believer in music that makes a statement and I value personal expression in pop music, but I have to admit that I'm not all that comfortable with the political perspective on this album.  It is not that I'm opposed to their viewpoint, it just seems forced and unnatural to me.  Part of it just may be me being weirded out by McCloud and what I've read about him which isn't really fair, but I think much of it is that I don't like getting preached to.  When Phil Ochs sings a protest song, I feel like he's communicating with me, but when the Johnstons sing "Angela Davis" I feel like I'm being lectured to.  Is this better than performing traditional songs like "The Lark in the Morning" like they did earlier in their career?  I don't know, you could probably make a case that both are equally lacking in authenticity.  I do know that this record sounds wonderful, chockful of excellent playing and singing.  If you dig Anglo-American folk rock you will probably find much to like here.  Recommended to people who think that Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is a better song than his cover of "See That My Grave is Kept Clean." 

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