Saturday, May 10, 2014
New Multitudes - Farrar, Johnson, Parker, Yames
Farrar, Johnson, Parker, Yames
I was fortunate enough to catch these guys playing this album at the Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen. The Mayan is an intimate venue and I got up close to the stage, close enough to bask in Yim Yames' aura as he shredded on bass. This album is a project in which modern musicians provide music for lyrics written by Woody Guthrie that he never recorded. The music is composed by Jay Farrar of Son Volt, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yames (aka Jim James), the leader of My Morning Jacket. The end result does not sound much like Guthrie, but I'm not complaining. I admire Guthrie, but I listen a lot more to Son Volt and My Morning Jacket than my Guthrie records. The sound is mostly alt-country and folk-rock and it manages to sound both contemporary and traditional at the same time. Farrar's "Hoping Machine" is my favorite track on the record. In the lyrics Guthrie urges the listener to keep hoping despite the problems of the world. The words are rather awkward and unwieldy but Farrar's high mournful voice makes them ring true and when the majestic "out of order" chorus takes off, the song becomes extremely powerful. It is a fantastic collaboration that in itself makes the project worthwhile. Parker's "Fly High" is more subdued and conventional. It is a sweet love song. The album hits another high with Yames' "My Revolutionary Mind." This is my favorite set of lyrics as Guthrie expresses his need for a left-wing lover because "ain't no reactionary baby can ease my revolutionary mind" after a hard day of class struggle. I suspect that Guthrie intended the song to be a little humorous, but with Yames' sensitive treatment and gorgeous vocal the song becomes a heartfelt and soulful plea. It is a brilliant adaptation and as a bonus it concludes with a brief, noisy rave-up - Yames just can't help himself, the man was born to rock out. Johnson's "V. D. City" is a Springsteen-style rocker with the propulsive music adding punch to an apocalpytic portrayal of a city ravaged by venereal disease where "Syph Alley" and "Clap Avenue" are overrun by lost souls. The fast tempo continues with Parker's "Old L. A." which is alternative rock reminiscent of R. E. M. and supports a lukewarm paean to Los Angeles. Yames closes out the side with the folky "Talking Empty Bed Blues." Yames' plaintive vocal underscores the loneliness expressed in the lyrics. Side two opens with Johnson's "Chorine My Sheba Queen" which is a moody and romantic folk song that reminds me of Iron and Wine. Farrar takes his turn with "Careless Reckless Love" which is another album highlight. He uses an alt-country approach to the song investing the simple lyrics with great feeling. The song builds in strength as it goes along propelled by a fine guitar solo. Parker's final contribution is his best, the excellent "Angel's Blues." The song is a rocker built around a ringing guitar riff suggestive of Neil Young or Richard Thompson. The song is sexier than you might expect from Guthrie as he boasts about his romantic prowess. Even Jim Morrison never came up with a line as good as "I got more little angels, than you'll find in the promised land." Johnson's "No Fear" is a bluesy shuffle in which Guthrie looks forward to dying. I find the song a little monotonous but the lyrics are impressive and remarkably dark. Yames wrote the music for "Changing World" which is a minimalist folk song. The lyrics are about not being afraid to change and live the life one wants to live. Farrar finishes the album with "New Multitudes" which is about how the new generation will make the world a better place. I think Farrar's three contributions to the record are the strongest among the four collaborators. He really has a feel for Guthrie's vision. The rest of the record is good too, one of the best of 2012 in my opinion. I like the multifaceted portrait of Guthrie that it provides. I don't claim to be an expert on the man, but I have a bunch of CDs and albums of his work and I find the breadth of material covered on this album to be revelatory. I'm used to hearing Guthrie do old folk songs, union songs and earnest protest songs. On this record he writes about sex, death and loneliness as well as politics and I like him better for it. Kudos to Farrar, Johnson, Parker and Yames for giving these wonderful old songs life. If you are not a vinyl nut, you probably should buy the deluxe CD version of this album (which costs less than the vinyl LP) which gets you a second disc with 11 extra songs plus a booklet with facsimiles of Guthrie's original handwritten lyrics as well as his artwork. The album has none of that much to my chagrin. It is still a great record though that sounds wonderful and I'm happy to have it. Recommended to people who like "Another Side Of Bob Dylan" better than "The Times They Are A-Changin'."