Monday, February 14, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1539: John Gorka

I’m one day removed from the Super Bowl, which means it is the first day of the off-season. I love the first couple of weeks of being able to do whatever I want on a Sunday, but it isn’t long until the novelty wears off and I’m jonesing for some football. Fortunately, music is an all-season event, and there’s always a new album to hold my attention. Here’s the latest.

Disc 1539 is…. Between Five and Seven

Artist: John Gorka

Year of Release: 1996

What’s up with the Cover? This cover edges close to “Giant Head Cover” but ultimately does not qualify. We can see just enough stuff going on around John Gorka’s medium-sized head. Gorka appears to be peering out of some vehicle – maybe public transit – and thinking wistfully about something. Perhaps he is thinking, “Should I shave off this hipster beard and get a haircut?”

How I Came To Know It: I told this story back when I reviewed “Jack’s Crows” (Disc 1394) but to recap, Gorka was noted on a list of obscure folk albums I should check out. The record wasn’t this one of those but after I got a taste for him, I explored further.

Initially I didn’t have “Between Five and Seven” on my radar, but a used copy was on sale at my local record shop for a mere $5, so I took a flier on it.

How It Stacks Up: You might imagine the logical place to rank “Between Five and Seven” would be at #6 (Get it? Get it?) However, I only have four of John Gorka’s records, so that won’t work. Instead I put it at #4.

Ratings: 2 stars

John Gorka is a talented singer-songwriter who sometimes collapses under the weight of his own cleverness. “Between Five and Seven” is unfortunately prone to this problem.

Gorka is a natural songwriter. I suspect he’s one of those guys who’s always got a leather satchel full of loose paper and songs he’s working on. The songs on “Between Five and Seven” are a dozen completed folk songs, all with melodies which possess a natural and easy flow. His baritone voice has a great tone that gives him a natural advantage as a storyteller.

Unfortunately, while Gorka is capable of turning anything into a song, it doesn’t follow that all the songs are interesting. He’s like the kindly uncle who has a gentle soul and an easy laugh, which he employs too often at his own jokes.

A good example is “Can’t Make Up My Mind.” This is a clever song about indecision, as Gorka takes a series of playful turns noting humorous paradoxes that metaphorically capture his lack of certainty. However, he overcooks the joke. It starts off with the good stuff, like “She looks best moving/or standing still” but by the fourth verse he’s descended into “Life’s a pair of ducks/Who are heading south.” My Grade 11 English teacher used to make that joke (his version was “a paradox is not two mallards flying over Admonton). We all liked it at first, but like “Can’t Make Up My Mind” it got old pretty quick.

There are a few too many of these self-satisfied chortles on the record. There are also songs where Gorka plays it straight (“Part of Your Own”, “Two Good Reasons”) but land a bit too schmaltzy. They aren’t bad songs, but they lack edge.

There are a few standouts, however. “Blue Chalk” tells the tale of a couple of lowlife lovers, the image of the blue chalk immediately painting a backdrop of smokey pool halls, hard living, and bad decisions. The record has quality lines for both his star-crossed lovers, but I like hers best:

“But she would never run from strangers
She sang alone like a bell will toll
Way above all the clang and clatter
Out of fear of her demon soul”

Good stuff, gritty and kind of triumphant in an anti-hero kind of way.

The Mortal Groove” is also solid, showcasing Gorka’s penchant for writing songs about the urban decay of both city streets and men’s souls.

As for the cleverness, it isn’t always unwelcome. “Campaign Trail” imagining a politician on the hustings. Usually folk singers go out of their way to lambast politicians, but Gorka seems to be noting the similarities of being on the hustings and being on tour. Both feature a lot of glad-handing, and an element of what Neil Peart would have called pretending "a stranger is a long-awaited friend.” The song notes musicians and politicians alike may forget your name, but don’t judge them – they meet a lot of people.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these moments to hold the full record together. So, while I liked it, I’ve also got to keep it real about whether I’m ever going to put this on over stronger records like “Jack’s Crows” or “Land of the Bottom Line.” It just isn’t going to happen. And so, I will pass this record along to the next stop on its journey, where I hope it will be better loved.

Best tracks: Blue Chalk, The Mortal Groove, Campaign Trail

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