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Wednesday, Jul 29 1998
Nanci Griffith
Other Voices, Too
(A Trip Back to Bountiful)

The story of American folk music is one of dissidents: Woody Guthrie's guitar was a machine that killed fascists; Pete Seeger wrote off an anti-union boss as a wife-beater; Bob Dylan knew that poor bourgeois Mr. Jones had no clue. Although Texan Nanci Griffith has delved into country and rock throughout her 20-year career, she's always been a folkie at heart; she loves the room for storytelling that only the folk form can provide. But unlike her influences, she's not much of a dissident, just a sharp -- if sometimes overly sentimental -- songwriter with a gorgeous voice and a sincere humanist message. While it often works well on her own records -- 1994's Flyer being the most recent example -- her politeness undermines Other Voices, Too, her second collection of covers. With a clean-sounding band and a who's who of folkies singing backup, she takes the legacies of Richard Thompson, Seeger, and Guthrie and makes them just as bourgeois as Mr. Jones.

The same problem plagued 1993's Other Voices, Other Rooms, her first collection of remakes: Filled with good intentions, she chose the songs and collaborators wisely, then let longtime producer Jim Rooney create antiseptic takes on Dylan, Guthrie, and Townes Van Zandt. Other Voices, Too does little to change the approach, though at 19 songs Griffith's vision is broader, dating back to folk composer Stephen Collins Foster in the 19th century. And while there's no doubting her grasp of history, Griffith's approach to the actual work is questionable. She seems bent on removing the hard edges of nearly every song. Richard Thompson's "Wall of Death" is stripped of its irony and sense of romantic peril, Guthrie's "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" loses its bitter drama, and Tom Rush's arrangement of the traditional "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm" takes its tale of murderous weather and turns it into a happy sing-along. It's a problem that even the impressive assembled cast can't help. Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Jerry Jeff Walker, Rosalie Sorrels, Odetta, and Thompson himself all tend to get lost in the mix, and no individual personality invades the music. Besides Griffith's, anyway.

The album only works when Griffith sticks to the romanticism she understands best: Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," or Harlan Howard's "The Streets of Baltimore." Both are charming and beautifully sung, but hardly the wide vision of folk history Griffith strives for. It's bourgeois folk, and there's no room for dissidents in a J. Crew catalog.

--Mark Athitakis

Paul McCartney & the London
Symphony Orchestra
Standing Stone
(EMI Classics)

Paul McCartney is a "hummer." That's the term used in Hollywood to describe a soundtrack composer of passable melodic gifts who neither reads nor writes music, but who employs various levels of collaborators to flesh out the harmonies and orchestration. In Hollywood, no one really cares who hummed, who orchestrated, and who harmonized as long as everyone goes home with a nice, saccharine glow in his cortex. But Standing Stone -- Paul McCartney's 1997 composition -- is not a film score. And Paul McCartney is not just any old hummer. Since 1991's Liverpool Oratorio he's been trying to become a serious classical composer by working with several collaborators on large-scale pieces. It's an odd strategy: Most classical composers build up their compositional chops by focusing on smaller, highly structured works as a starting point. Given Standing Stone's overall lack of verve, it's a starting point McCartney might benefit from visiting.

Just because McCartney wrote "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby" -- and other gigantic pop songs -- doesn't mean that he can't start small in the classical realm. But for whatever reason -- ego? knighthood? -- he's gone and put his name on a 70-plus-minute work with four movements that purport to tell the evolution of mankind from the moment an asteroid slammed into Earth up until the present day, a time when -- he suggests -- the love you take is equal to the love you make. While they're at it, Sir Paul and his collaborators employ a full orchestra -- complete with a double percussion section -- and chorus.

If you don't know much about classical music, you'll find the work downright somnolent. But if you do, you might feel a little cheated. There's the not-so-minor issue of collaboration, which is a definite no-no in the classical realm. It's just not a genre that is amenable to the hummer's approach of framing a few melodies and the barest of changes while leaving the compositional grunt work to others. It's a lowering of standards, and it strips a work of its integrity and soul. The situation is not unlike that of mixing up the genes of a tomato and a potato. Sure, the result is frost resistant and gets the job done, but it doesn't taste like much of anything -- except a pomato.

And in classical music taste and feeling are everything, which is why a lot of 200- and 300-year-old compositions are still appreciated today.

Standing Stone, as much as it desperately tries to push it -- here come the timpani again! Paul's building toward something! -- never feels like much of anything except a rock. That's the problem with programmatic works: They have an agenda that springs from the wet blanket of reason instead of the fires of the soul; they're the musical version of morality plays. Occasionally, McCartney's melodies ignite a few of the submovements of Standing Stone. But those melodies never get played out. I hate to cite someone like Mozart as an example, but even in a simple work like "Turkish Rondo," the composer could take a dazzling little melody, hold it aloft and inspect it the way a child does a toad, and watch it morph into something God couldn't have dreamed.

When a McCartney submovement like "Cell" heats up into a composition that at least feels like a dream, someone -- the Beatle, his collaborators, the pomato growers committee? -- crushes it back into plodding mediocrity. The method of dream-canceling is odd, too. Whoever is in charge follows the crushed melodies with open quotes of several classical artists. (Mahler's "First Symphony" and Philip Glass' Glassworks are two of the obvious ones.) It's not exactly plagiarism, but it's hardly the product of a burning imagination. It seems more like someone got scared by the deep waters he was in and decided to find some stepping stones to the opposite riverbank. Sure, the Beatles came under the spell of American R&B artists early in their careers. But that's de rigueur in pop music: They were working in the realm of popular music where trading on someone else's work sails over the heads of most everyone in the audience. Paul McCartney is no longer in that world. Maybe that's why a few weeks back at Davies Symphony Hall the crowd -- as well as the symphony members themselves -- all looked as though they were writing term papers for a class they didn't especially like. They seemed to understand that McCartney hasn't yet made the transition from pop god to a classical composer unafraid to start small and work up to larger pieces.

The cynic in me wished that McCartney were at the Davies performance to examine the faces of bored symphony players, to hear audience members rustling on velveteen seat covers. Then maybe he could have flown out the exit, hailed a cab, and high-tailed it to the nearest pawnshop. Places like that sell guitars. Every once in a great while geniuses buy them and compose amazing pop melodies.

-- Philip Dawdy


Waycross is Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath powered by girls and run through a country-and-western filter. The players, several San Francisco music veterans, combine to form that certain mixture -- of lyrical profundity, musical depth, and good old wall-of-sound aesthetic -- that links the body to the brain without letting one rule the other.

It's the kind of songwriting that sticks. Waycross' songs are delightful to the ear, but not too easy on the mind. On one level, Waycross evokes great melodies and beautiful vocal harmonies without forgetting to throw in a kick-ass guitar. But there's something more recondite about the band. Many of the lyrics seem to be the residue of dark novels -- typically American, Southern-but-Gothic books -- written maybe by Faulkner or any of the skilled authors who inspired Nick Cave to become a novelist. A Waycross song is the crystallized version of the story, what is left after time erases the memory of the plot, leaving only the impression the book gave, the air it made the reader breathe, or the place it set her back down in after it took her up. "In spite of straps and cripplings may your legions grow wings/ The clouds show some integrity and part to let you in/ I took the taste directly from your lips/ And now I wait along these rails to wrest the empire from your grip," sings Caroleen Beatty in "Impact."

The songs contain love, hate, ambition and regret, mercy and its lack, weakness rising up to bite power in the ass, and power throwing it back. They never offer easy conclusions: "I have had better company to harass and judge me/ I have walked out on far fiercer wars/ To this place of peace which frankly disturbs me/ And moves me from rotten to worse." Listeners will find inspiration of a kind within these songs because they are powerful, but no one will find guidance or moral certainty. The lyrics demonstrate that such easy solution-making will fail.

The lyrics, as they must be to succeed, are framed by a powerful sound that both pays respects to its influences -- Leonard Cohen, the Geraldine Fibbers, old metal, even older country -- and stands apart. Sunshine Haire's dramatic use of slide guitar in many of the songs sets the scene for the drama, Doug Hilsinger's bass sends the weak-kneed to the back of the room, and Bruce Ducheneaux's drums keep them coming forward. This kind of musical reproduction or renewal, taking existing forms and making them new -- reorienting them to our own time zone -- always signals the best kind of human life. It's the hope of progress that doesn't forget its roots.

Waycross performs Thursday, Aug. 13, at the Make-Out Room.
-- Jill Stauffer


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