Wednesday, August 16, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1042: John Prine

This is the fourth album from the 1990s I’ve reviewed in a row. Two of them I’ve owned for a long time and two (including this one) are recent additions to the collection.

Disc 1042 is…Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings
Artist: John Prine

Year of Release: 1995

What’s up with the Cover? The instantly recognizable art of John Callahan. While I found his TV show “Quads” pretty funny, I’ve never been a fan of Callahan’s art. This picture does little to change my opinion.

How I Came To Know It: I was doing a recent dive through John Prine’s back catalogue and this one caught my eye (ear?).

How It Stacks Up:  Since parting with “The Missing Years” back at Disc 1026, I now have five John Prine albums remaining. This one did much better and is a keeper, although it only managed to land 3rd or 4th overall, depending on how I feel about “Aimless Love” when I review it.

Ratings: 3 stars

John Prine’s early career is full of quiet and thoughtful folk and country songs, but 24 years on “Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings” he opts for a bit more rock and roll in the mix. The results are uneven.

First the good stuff. Prine’s songwriting continues to be solid, and while these are rhythms and melodies you will have heard countless times before, Prine knows how to use them well enough that you forgive the lack of originality on that front.

Lyrically, Prine has always been the king of self-examination, and on “Lost Dogs…” he focuses his wit on relationships, mostly of the long-term variety. There are a lot of love songs on this record that are so touching that they sometimes cross into trite.

When they stay on the right side of that line, they are touching and romantic. Twenty years earlier “All the Way With You” might have been about getting lucky down by the lake, but here Prine just reminds you that relationships are a slow build, and a commitment to keep at it not because you have to, but because you want to. It is an obvious theme, but when you hear him sing it, you still smile.

On “We Are the Lonely” Prine lists the many types of lonely out there in the world, including multiple hilarious references to the newspaper dating section. These now seem anachronistic yet strangely evocative of modern dating apps. When it comes to what it feels like to crave human companionship, the more things change, the more they stay the same – which is entirely Prine’s point.

We Are the Lonely” is also one of the songs where Prine “rocks out.” It isn’t terrible, but rock and roll is not Prine’s strong suit. He does succeed better here than later, though.  “Leave the Light On” is a painful and strained appeal to Chuck Berry fifties rock, which has more strained rhymes than I’ve ever heard in one place since “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. I suspect Prine revels in these bad rhymes, having never shaken that ‘goofy uncle’ vibe in his music.

Lake Marie” is a beautiful song and the album’s standout. It tells the story of Prine’s relationship with a lake, through its discovery, naming, romantic excursions there and then – in an unexpectedly morbid twist – a murder:

“The police had found two bodies
Their faces had been horribly disfigured
By some sharp object.”

These lines are more at home on an Opeth album, and a bit of a shocker given only a couple minutes earlier Prine was remembering grilling Italian sausages down by the lakeshore and cuddling his wife. This song should not work, but strangely, it does.

On “Humidity Built the Snowman” Prine writes a pretty melody, but the metaphor feels strained, as though he fell in love with the turn of phrase in the song title, and tried to build it into something more than it was worth.

Near the end of the record, “This Love Is Real” gives a nice surprise, with a guest vocal from Marianne Faithfull. I love Faithfull’s raspy hurt-filled voice. Prine has never been a strong singer, but here Faithfull’s vocals bring the best out in him. Also a nice surprise – heartbreaker Benmont Tench returns for another Prine album, lending his prodigious talents on the piano and organ.

For the second straight review, the album ended up being too long – this time 14 songs and 57 minutes. This is a common malaise among nineties albums, as artists realized they were no longer bound by the strict time limits of vinyl. The time limits are a good thing, 90s artists – respect them!

At times “Lost Dogs…” feels dated, but at other times it just feels experienced, with Prine embracing aging and the perspective it gives you on life, love and even lakeshore getaways.

Best tracks: Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody, All the Way With You, We Are the Lonely, Lake Marie, This Love is Real

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