This review is written by Dai Woosnam,email@example.com, 10/04
The language of Arts Criticism has become devalued somewhat in recent years by the demented use of hyperbole: a use that borders on the incontinent. We in Britain are as guilty as our American cousins in this, but that said, I know where to lay the finger of blame.
And it ain't at us lot here, even though I have no doubt us
Brits need to cast the mote out of our own eye first. No, this
hyperbolic lunacy started Stateside alright.
Just look at an American audience. Just see how they have
devalued the currency of the Standing Ovation. It is de rigueur
nowadays, unless a singer has forgotten their words and/or burned Old
Glory on stage.
Indeed, George Jones used to get one just for turning up!
Why do I mention this? Well, because I want to say that this 4 CD set has some moments of PURE MAGIC: there are no other words for it. And even though I try to water my words down, I cannot. So there, I have put my cards on the table from the outset. You are going to hear of moments of sublime artistic creation: there is no way I can write them off as commonplace, even though there is a part of me that is on Anti-Hyperbole Patrol.
But more of that later when I deal with each of the 4 CDs. For the moment let me talk about the concept of “Before Their Time”. Perhaps, to save me writing something I need not, will you please dear Reader be kind enough to quit this page momentarily and go off to the Before Their Time website.
This will give you the whole “raison d'etre” so much better than I can.
So please report back to me in 25 minutes. I shall meantime go off and make a pot of tea. De Quincey always reckoned that tea was the food of the intellect: so let's see if that helps me. Okay? Then “bye for now”!
Oh, I nearly forgot! Here is the link: http://www.beforetheirtime.org/.
Sounds of crockery being taken out of cabinet. Then, slurp, slurp, for 20+ minutes.]
Right. I assume everyone is back on this page, and that you now
know all about Michael Whitman's inspired venture. So I will not go
down the road of telling you the sad story of how the whole venture
started, how so many celebrated performers donate tracks and waive all
royalties in order that their work can benefit good causes.
Elsewhere on Kevin's Celtic Pages you will find my review for Volumes 1&2.
Here, I am only (ha “only”!) reviewing Volume 3, the 4 CD set
that went on sale from 2nd October 2004. So let's get down to business.
First, let me say what a handsomely presented set of CDs this is. They are packaged in an ingeniously designed triple jewel case, and the 4 CDs are accompanied by the most glorious liner notes. These notes not only include the lyrics to all the songs, but explanations as to what (often sad) story prompted the creative spark. This insight is often provided here by the songwriter or the performer. Some of these notes touch the heart when perhaps the relevant lyrics don't: but often both lyrics and liner notes hit the bulls-eye simultaneously.
Nadine Laughlin (apart from donating a track) also excels with her work on the liner notes. She is one of the small team that Michael Whitman, the Executive Producer, has drawn around him on this (by definition) lengthy and complex project. Nadine is to be applauded for her contribution in her particular sphere of the operation, i.e. ensuring that the liner notes were of the highest quality.
She has succeeded triumphantly: the liner notes are a model of how it should be done. Black type on a white background. As old as the hills, and knocks into a cocked hat all those trendy, coloured background liner notes, where you cannot read the words for the darned motif/photo that has been made part of the background.
So, the obvious question is, did the 4 CDs live up to the A1 liner notes?
And are they worthy of the splendid packaging? The answer is an
emphatic “yes”! The whole thing is a profoundly rewarding experience.
And for those listeners who are subsumed by an all-enveloping grief,
perhaps this is the ONE thing that the doctor didn't “order”: and
paradoxically they will find it worth all their prescribed medicines
combined…and THEN some!
Let me first tell you how I - a British reviewer - approached the whole listening experience. It was first an educative thing: I wanted to know about the performer.
Now, of course the Brit/Irish artistes were all familiar names to me: however, not so when it came to the North American artistes. About 50% of them were previously not on my radar. So what better than to simultaneously check them out on the internet during my first listening?
And what do I see? Gosh, so much pulchritude! Why are North American women so photogenic? And the beauty is not just physical: their voices are without exception as sweet as their faces.
But let nobody wilfully misunderstand: these are not “male chauvinist” musings on my part. The sweetness of face and voice adds an added poignancy somehow: it helps remind us that the subjects of many of the songs were once similarly beautiful young people in the prime of life, until they were struck down so cruelly.
Having familiarised myself with the artistes, my “second listening” took place at night: a natural time for reflection and indeed melancholy. And then a third playing again, all the way through but this time on an early, sunny September morning, when the birds were singing and life seemed sweet enough to eat. (And far too precious for me to want to miss a minute of it, let alone want to leave it prematurely.)
So each time I spent my 3 hours and 46 minutes deeply engrossed in this magical collection. (By the way, is that not wonderful value for the American price of - before postage - 30 dollars US? Incidentally, the single CD Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are still available from the website at 15 dollars US each volume. So you do not need to be Einstein to see that the “real” price of this 4 CD set should be close to double what it is here.)
And at the end of my 11 hours plus, alone with these 4 CDs for company, what were my conclusions? Well, before I give you them, let me make the point that this review MUST differ slightly from all my others, and not just in that it will be my longest review EVER (which is right and appropriate inasmuch as it reflects on the sheer size and importance of the artistic project that Michael Whitman has presented us with here). It also will differ from my usual review in that I must be conscious of the fact that artistes do not go looking for Whitman: he goes looking for them.
Artistes do not ask a cent for their work: every penny goes to these good causes. And thus the reviewer should take this on board: artistes did not ask to be on these CDs, and their generosity calls for better than a reviewer like me, sniping from the sidelines. So, songs that did not work for me will pass uncommented on. And alas, so will some that put tears in my eyes: for even online reviews cannot go on for ever. Thus it will just be the most magical of the songs I can comment on here.
So, let me take you through all four sides and try to point out the highlights of my journey. First, let's deal with the running order. This can be crucial with any CD.
Now, one can decide on running order by drawing titles from a hat if one wishes: and hope that Old Mother Serendipity will do the rest. And I guess this can work. But better to put one's thinking cap on and catch the right mood at the right time: get the ebb tide at the start, and the high tide at the close. And look for the chance to deliciously juxtapose songs.
And, by golly, some inspired thinking has gone into the running order here.
CD#1 commences with Robin Greenstein's “Slow Burn”. Now this is far from the strongest song on this CD (let alone all four), but is a marvellous opener, in that it has a real presence. One of those songs that sets the scene and the mood: a bit like Dylan's “On A Night Like This” does on his “Planet Waves”. And the title is so richly symbolic: a “slow burn” is exactly what the next three and three-quarter hours will become. And its melody hints of emotionally stormy times ahead: a sense that the barometer is plummeting.
Track 4 provides one of several moments of epiphany to be found on this collection. Kate Taylor really pinned my ears back in a song largely written by the late Charles H. Witham. The song opens with “I was waiting in the darkness/For the telephone to ring/I was waiting for the headlights/And the comfort they would bring.”
Which one of us has not been there? I regularly wait up for my dear wife to return from a distant city, looking out for her headlights as they light up our drive.
“I Will Fly” is as arresting a song as I have heard in ages, not least for the gorgeous hook with the plaintive male voice singing back the return (repeated) line. Alas for once the liner notes let me down: they didn't tell me whose voice that is. Sounds remarkably like the tonal quality of Kate's brother, the celebrated James Taylor. But surely it cannot be? Or can it?
Track 5 “Rain and Sunshine (for Maribel)” really grew on me. Lyrics and music by Sam Shaber, a lady who has drank deeply from the well of Joni Mitchell, but has still turned out an original and commendably sure-footed song.
The other stand-out cut on CD#1 comes from the always impressive David Mallet. Now here I should declare an interest: I recommended his work to the Executive Producer in correspondence a little over two years ago.
Mallet is a class act if ever I heard one.
True, this track is not the one I would have chosen. But the way Mallet puts it across, is indicative of a performer of real gravitas at the very top of his game.
Now to CD#2. And here we find four very strong tracks batched together.
The batch starts with an affecting Jon Vezner song “Ashes
in the Wind” delivered by wife Kathy Mattea with her usual
pitch-perfect assurance. Then follows a song that had such an impact on
me that I am still pinned to my ceiling as I write this.
It is a song about “9/11”. Now, until I heard it, I would have bet my house on nobody surpassing Tom Paxton's “The Bravest”. If I had, I'd now be homeless.
For Amy Fairchild's “Tuesday” is one of those songs that, on hearing it, inhabits your whole memory, nervous system and indeed, your whole BEING, to the expense of almost everything else. It is a remarkable work of art.
A song from someone standing in Hoboken and viewing the Twin Towers disaster unfold across the Hudson River.
The chorus spells it out starkly:
“Way across the river/I heard the city cry/I lost my mind on Tuesday/Kiss the life you knew goodbye”.
But it ain't just the words. It's the voice. A voice that throws the rule-book away and in doing so, ends up being supremely compelling. When she sings “I lost my mind on Tuesday”, brother, you'd better believe her.
It is there in the voice. And trust me, it is some voice!
Listen to her sing the words “way/heard/lost” in that chorus, and just
Then in contrast, back-to-back with that “9/11” song, we have a melodic meditation by Peter Ostroushko. “Hymn: Page 9/11”. It is so wise of the Producers to place this moving lament AFTER the Fairchild song, because this hymn is not just for the dead, injured and bereaved: it is also aimed at mopping the fevered brow of an Amy Fairchild and 2 million other first-hand (non TV) viewers of the nightmare horror show down there near Battery Park.
All of them impotent to help in a disaster so unconscionable in scale that it consumed all the efforts of the NYC Emergency Authorities to deal with it.
And then we have a song that I suggested to Michael Whitman two years ago, though not the version that I included on a tape to him. “Rosemary's Sister” is a song us Brits know very well, since it was written by a South Wales Valleys boy, Huw Williams. (I too hail from the same area.) A bittersweet song that brilliantly succeeds in showing the sheer arbitrariness of blitz bombing, and the utter futility of war.
There is one more fantastic song here on CD#2. Tommy Makem's “Four Green Fields”. Now let me declare an interest (of sorts) here.
I have always been a huge Makem fan. I loved the man so much that on my first ever visit to NYC, what did I hunt out before the Empire State Building, before Radio City Music Hall, before the Round Table of the Algonquin Hotel? Why, Tommy's much lamented (now closed) restaurant on East 57th Street, of course. It was truly the “Holy Ground” to a trencherman like me.
And this song I know very well. Indeed I have performed it in public. I reckon it a masterpiece: but, I have always known it to be such in an agitprop sort of way. It is decidedly parti pris. None the worse for that: I used to sing “Kevin Barry” too. And I can think of no higher praise than to say that I regard Makem's song as even better.
But the inclusion of the song is a bit of a puzzle. I guess you can justify it on the grounds of all the young life senselessly lost on all three sides in The Troubles. THREE sides? How come?
Well there are Nationalist, Loyalist, and a third element. And that element is those young British soldiers killed in the most cowardly way of all: a bullet in the back or a roadside bomb.
But, if one accepts this masterpiece of a song, one does not have to accept Tommy's comment in the liner notes. His comment “It's a plea for Ireland to be left to chart her destiny without interference, a destiny for all her sons and daughters. Surely after 800 years of ‘interference', it's not too much to ask”.
This is a breathtakingly crass remark, worthy of the worst excesses of NorAid spokesmen 20 years ago. He forgets that the British Army were called in by the Nationalists in 1969 to save them from the Loyalists and the hated B-Specials. I can speak for just about every Brit I know when I say that we want nothing to do with Ireland. The general feeling amongst most folk here in Britain is “let them fight it out amongst themselves”
And “fight” there would surely be.
Tommy, you can write a brilliant propagandist song: that is the job of an artist. However to introduce your song this way in THESE liner notes somehow puts a slight stain on the whole booklet. I daresay you did not intend such overtly political words to be printed amongst so many heartrending introductions about songs of personal loss : if so, it was a rare error of judgement on the part of BTT.
Anyway, enough on that matter. Now on to CD#3. Five tracks in, we have a blissfully trance-inducing song by Joel Mabus, “Snow on the Water”.
Seldom have I heard such a sublime marriage of voice and
instrument: I promise you that a mandolin will never sound sweeter than
And as if one hypnotic track was not enough, it is followed by another. A glorious song by Kerry Getz: “Inhale”. Lyrics that mesmerise: ostensibly simple, but coupled with Getz's vocal and instrumental delivery, become considerably greater than they seem on paper.
Then there's Eric Bogle's simple song “One Small Star”. Written after hearing of the Dunblane school massacre in Scotland. One is touched by the almost naïve sincerity of the lyric and sweet melody.
Talking of melodies, Jay Ungar provides perhaps the best on the whole album with his and Molly Mason's version of Jay's “The Quiet Room”. It is no exaggeration to say that it is worthy to be bracketed alongside his “Ashokan Farewell”.
And then the fourth CD. This has all the rich variety of the previous three. Terri Allard's “Bright Day” is a sparkling opener to CD#4. She is joined by Tim Anderson: their joint vocals are worthy of Richard and Mimi Fariña in their prime.
Nice to see not only a song from the late Dave Carter (assisted by his partner Tracy Grammer, of course) but also another song paying tribute to him. For sure, his was a classic case of a man “gone before his time”.
Dave of course was a “famous” loss: many of the people memorialised here were perhaps famous only to their families and to their God. As indeed are the recipients of the money made by this wonderful venture. Hospices are full of Joe Blows like me and you, rather than celebrities.
And with a wonderful sense of symmetry, the fourth CD (and thus the set) is brought to a close by another fine song. Kristina Olsen's “The Art of Being Kind”. Why this is the perfect song to close proceedings with, is easy.
The song is dedicated by Kristina to her older sister who was a flight attendant who died on 9/11 travelling on American Airlines Flight 11.
That Kristina could write such a touching song amongst such
personal tragedy is praiseworthy: that she should then go on to be a
peace activist on delegations to Afghanistan and Iraq, well, this just
leaves me awestruck.
It's humbling to know I belong to the same Human Race as this fine lady.
And it is her HUMANITY and POSITIVITY that closes the set, and brings the whole thing “full circle” from “Robin Greenstein's “Slow Burn” that kicked it all off nearly 4 hours ago. And one cannot stress how important this attitude of “positivity” is, when beset by grief.
Many of you reading this may have been recently bereaved. (Or perhaps you soon will be.) Whatever, I urge you to buy this album and its two predecessors now. Let's hope you have no immediate “use” for it, and are just happy to play it for its artistic content. But trust me it does “work”.
How do I know? Well, just over two years ago, literally just when reviewing Volume 2, some terrible news from Mexico arrived at my door. The first love of my life, my dear Mexican girlfriend Socorro, had died of cancer. This was the girl who 26 years previously had given me the most vital thing a young Catholic Mexican girl can give any boy. Although we had ended our relationship and married other partners, we had always kept a place for each other in our hearts.
Weirdly, I got the news of her death at the exact same moment that I got Before Their Time Vol. 2. And the constant playing of Vols. 1&2 helped me see a rainbow through my tears.
I believe that “Before Their Time” has shown with the release of this immensely impressive Vol. 3, that it is a concept now ready to break outside the bounds of America. It is no longer BEFORE its time here in Europe.
Its time has come and its time is NOW.
It has already attracted some major UK folk names like Kate Rusby and Jez Lowe to donate tracks: but my hunch is that with megastars like Joan Baez donating a track (as she does here on Vol. 3) the whole concept now has the clout to make major marketing inroads overseas.
I wish it the fairest of winds.
CD One, "It's A Slow Burn"
CD Two, "They're Just Gone"
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