Saturday, October 12, 2013

Dark Chords on a Big Guitar (2003)

I've spent most of my life indifferent to Joan Baez, but I like "Diamonds and Rust" (the song, not the album) so much I never entirely count her out, and this album, for one, has finally justified my persistence, such as it is. I caught up to it a year or two after release; it was the Steve Earle song, "Christmas in Washington," that drew me in—though it is about 1996 (and though it name-checks Woody Guthrie) I heard it through the filter of 2004, and its deep melancholy felt like respite, a connection sorely needed, however misinterpreted. I also liked the title of the album, which further underlined the appeal of the song, so I took a chance. It's a pretty good album overall. On close inspection, the basic idea appears to be casting a net and covering songs of a later generation and certain musical sympathies. So there's at least one songwriting credit apiece for Earle, Ryan Adams, Greg Brown, Natalie Merchant, and Gillian Welch, among others. The production by Mark Spector layers on a thick, buffed-up sheen that occasionally feels a little suffocating, but if it's undeniably pristine it comes up well short of sterile. It works fine with Baez's clarion singing, as true as ever at 62, her age when she recorded this album. And the implications of the title are not shirked on either. The Natalie Merchant cover, "Motherland," for example, with its carefully positioned post-grunge squalls, is well within the explicit promise of dark chords and big guitars—I admit it surprised me Baez could pull that off, but I'm happy for the schooling. On the other hand, the sensibilities of Baez and the songwriters are mostly aligned, but occasionally jarring, as in "Elvis Presley Blues" (by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings), another brick in the myth of the cultural shit-house that is the day Elvis Presley died (compare Elvis: What Happened?, or the Odds, "Wendy Under the Stars"). I can believe it's someone else's experience—and see no reason to think it's not Welch's and/or Rawlings's—but it does make me wonder what Joan Baez was actually doing and thinking and feeling that day. The cultural figure she seems most genuinely involved with on this album, judging by what I hear as her commitment in singing the song, is not Elvis but rather the beat poet Kenneth Rexroth, who appears ghost fashion in Greg Brown's "Rexroth's Daughter." In my mind, that's as it should be. It grounds the album well within her sensibility, and enables her to reach beyond it credibly and with admirable force. So, finally, a Joan Baez album I can count as a real pleasure. I think I'd have to say it was worth the wait.

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