Saturday, October 26, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1311: John Prine

After a busy week the weekend is finally here. I put in my last day at my old job on Friday and my first day at a new one comes Monday. While all that change has preoccupied my thinking, I still found some room up in the old brain box for music.

Disc 1311 is… Sweet Revenge
Artist: John Prine

Year of Release: 1973

What’s up with the Cover? Prine relaxes in a convertible, boots crossed jauntily on the door, and enjoys a smoke break. A few minutes later I imagine the owner of the car came along and asked him what the hell he was doing in there. Prine then languorously poured himself onto the street and sauntered down the street, the smile never leaving his face. Some folks are just chill like that.

How I Came to Know It: I had always known about Prine by reputation, but it was my friend Casey that ignited my interest when he played a couple of his songs for me at a music night. One was “Dear Abby” and when I discovered it was on this album, I decided to start there with my exploration of his music.

How It Stacks Up:  I now have five John Prine albums (I’m still on the lookout for 1978’s “Bruised Orange” but is damned hard to find). “Sweet Revenge” and Prine’s eponymous 1971 release are in a dead heat for first place, but since I’m not one to equivocate I’ll put “Sweet Revenge” into second in a photo finish.

Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5

“Sweet Revenge” is a masterful crossover of folk and country music that is still relevant and poignant today, over 45 years after it was first released.

The album has a delightful country swing to it that makes for an easy and relaxed listen that fits well with the reclining shot of Prine on the cover. The melodies bounce gentle in the ears, and have a timeless quality to them. Some of the progressions feel borrowed from traditional tunes, but Prine updates them in a way that makes them uniquely his own while still honouring the source material.

Prine’s vocals are far from powerful (a colleague of mine once said that he sings everything in the key of “A” because that’s easiest for someone with no range). Even so, he has a folksy quaver that, along with his solid feel for timing and phrasing, draws you into the stories he’s telling. The record feels like you’re sitting on the back porch of some farmhouse swapping tunes on guitar with the neighbours.

A good record often brings you in with one song only to have you discover four more you like even better, and that happened for me with “Sweet Revenge”. I bought the record for the kitschy “Dear Abby” which is still fun every time I hear it but loses a bit of its lustre once you know all the jokes.

Prine has always had a talent for exploring serious topics from a humorous, self-deprecating angle. On “Please Don’t Bury Me” where he imagines what might happen to his body and worldly possessions after he dies. His suggestions include:

"Give my stomach to Milwaukee
If they run out of beer
Put my socks in a cedar box
Just to get 'em out of here

"Venus De Milo can have my arms
Look out! I've got your nose
Sell my heart to the junk man
And give my love to Rose"

Fun abounds in these lines, including acknowledging Prine’s love of beer, the fact that his socks smell (cedar is where you store things you want to smell better, FYI). He ends it all with a tip of the hat to Johnny Cash.

I like every song on the record, and maybe it was my wistful mood of late, but I was drawn to Prine’s sadder songs this time around. “Christmas in Prison” captures the loneliness of inmates on big holidays, as one writes to his lover on the outside, closing with:

“The search light in the big yard turns 'round with the gun
And spotlights the snowflakes like the dust in the sun
It's Christmas in prison there'll be music tonight
I'll probably get homesick, I love you, Good night”

The bittersweet “A Good Time” is a seemingly simple song that belies a complexity of emotion. Listening to it I can’t honestly tell if the narrator is falling in love or losing it, or maybe both simultaneously. Prine artfully creates the tension. The mournful tune in the background just adds to your confusion, but it is a delightful confusion.

The guitar work on “A Good Time” is particularly good, and while many of the songs might be simple jangles, Prine has assembled some first-class musicians to deliver them, and the effort shows.

In 2018 John Prine released his latest record, “The Tree of Forgiveness” to considerable critical acclaim and commercial success. I thought it was OK, but nothing special – the kind of record that is solid but benefits from hearkening back to an artist’s early classics. “Sweet Revenge” is one of those classics, a record with a lot to say that says it simple and straight to the heart. If you’re going to dive into John Prine, this is a fine place to start.

Best tracks: Sweet Revenge, Please Don’t Bury Me, Christmas in Prison, Blue Umbrella, Grandpa Was a Carpenter, The Accident (Things Could Be Worse), A Good Time, frankly many more…

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