The "1988 Year in Music" gave the world Tracy Chapman, a from-the-gut folk-rocker who set the listening world on its collective ear and set cash registers a-ringing. All of which caught industry insiders by surprise, considering they had proclaimed folk music dead.
Little wonder that 1989 has seen a revival of acoustic, folk-flavored music that is more than a little derivative of not only Chapman but other trend-setters like Michelle Shocked, John Cougar Mellencamp and John Hiatt.Many of those hitching a ride on the folk-flavored bandwagon are actually very, very good. Some are even recognizable names from yesteryear trying to recapture past glories.
Some of what they've produced is good. Some isn't.
Joan Baez - "Diamonds and Dust in the Bullring" (Gold Castle). Joan Baez may have helped spark the folk revival of the 1960s with her firebrand politicism, but 20 years later, Baez is struggling to hit a responsive chord with today's socially conscious youth.
Even her most loyal fans may have a hard time with "Diamonds." Sure, there are good moments, like the a capella "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," and the gospel-tinged "Let It Be."
But most of the tunes are rather dull, particularly "Llego con Tres Heridas," "Famous Blue Raincoat" and a remake of Sting's "Ellas Danzan Solas." The songs lack any depth, exude pretentiousness and don't stack up with even the average stuff being released by the new breed of folk singer.
The album was recorded last summer in a bullring in Bilbao, Spain, and includes live cuts of some of her standards. One side was recorded in Spanish and the other in English.
Carole King - "City Streets" (Capitol Records). The problem with a masterpiece is that anything else you do isn't quite as good. The problem with Carole King's "Tapestry" is that everything else she's done hasn't been received with quite the same enthusiasm.
Such is the case with King's just-released "City Streets." Not only have the reviews been rather lukewarm, but some have been downright vicious, calling the album everything from embarrassing to laughable.
The bad news is that some of the criticism has merit. The good news is that "City Streets" isn't nearly as bad as some have claimed. In fact, some parts of it are downright exceptional.
The album's best cuts include "Ain't That the Way" and "Midnight Flyer," both of which rank among the best King has ever done.
On "City Streets" Carole King proves she can still sing in that folksy sort of way, she call still weave a piano ballad with the best of them and she still has a knack for catchy melodies. What more did anyone expect? Or want, for that matter.
"City Streets" is King's first release in seven years, and features an uncharacteristically lush production that plants her firmly in the middle of the adult contemporary road. The album also features guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Branford Marsalis and others.
Don't rush out to buy "City Streets" expecting a "Tapestry." But if you liked King's distinctive voice and wistful piano work, you can do a lot worse than "City Streets."
Bruce Cockburn - "Big Circumstance" (Gold Castle). If Bruce Cockburn never finds middle-of-the-road success it will be because he's having too much fun offroading.
Cockburn is arguably the most politically charged folk/rock singer in the business. Even Lou Reed seems a nice guy next to Cockburn, whose subject matter ranges from rocket launchers to death squads to ecological Armageddon to nuclear accidents.
Easy targets, certainly, but few are willing to tackle such subjects with such gut-wrenching passion as Cockburn on "Big Circumstance." Throw in some good melodies, a fine singing voice and you've got the makings of a great album.
"Big Circumstance" is Cockburn's first studio album in three years, and features his trademark overkill of vividly descriptive lyrics and tough-as-leather folk-rock. Some fairly decent guitar work is icing on the cake.
More than anything, "Big Circumstance" is brutally honest.
This album isn't for everybody. If you don't like your politics on the left side of the aisle and you support Ollie North and American foreign policy in Central America, "Big Circumstance" is likely to cause a lot of heartburn.