Sunday, July 11, 2010

Two New Nashville Albums: Only One Is Fresh

Somedays The Song Writes You
Guy Clark

Just Across The River
Jimmy Webb
E1 Music

“Nashville runs on songs” – Larry Wanagas, k.d. lang’s former manager.

Two of the most prolific composers to come out of Nashville are Jimmy Webb and Guy Clark. Webb is the man who wrote country pop songs for Glen Campbell (“Wichita Lineman,” “By The Time I Get to Phoenix”} and Richard Harris (“MacArthur Park”). Guy Clark, who’s originally from the west Texas town of Monahans, has penned songs recorded by Johnny Cash (“Texas, 1947”) and Ricky Skaggs  (“Heartbroke”).

There’s always been a kind of pathos to the songs of Guy Clark and no less so on his new album Somedays The Song Writes You, but this is a record about the difficulty of writing songs and tapping into one’s muse. The title track laments a common belief that a song can appear in one’s head at any time regardless of your direction. As Clark sings. “There’s no rhyme or reason/Ain’t a damn thing you can do/Somedays you write the song/Somedays the song writes you.” This is a belief every songwriter or poet or novelist must endure to tap into his or her creativity and put pen to paper, as it were. “Hemingway’s Whiskey” brings the artistic struggle together with the personal, clearly talking about American writer Ernest Hemingway. Clark sings, “You know it’s tough out there/A good muse is hard to find/Livin’ one word to the next/One line at a time.” But Clark also points out “there’s more to life than whiskey/More to words than rhyme.” That song, like the whole album, is delightful to the ear.

For Jimmy Webb, who tapped into his muse for some of the most familiar songs in popular music, offers a success story with his new album Just Across The River. It’s a collection of duets featuring Webb’s most famous tunes newly recorded by him with special guests. For instance, Webb is joined by Glen Campbell on “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” one of the saddest songs ever written. Like many of the performances on this album, it falls under the weight of familiarity for me. There’s nothing fresh in the vocals or interpretations. That said, Lucinda Williams does make a valiant attempt at phrasing “Galveston” in a rougher way, but the evenness of the production softens her natural edge. Billy Joel’s efforts on “Wichita Lineman” are earnest but he doesn’t make it past the New Jersey turnpike let alone across the river on that track. Meanwhile, Jackson Browne’s vocal on “P.F. Sloan” is strong because he seems to have that West Coast feel that Jimmy Webb exploits perfectly.

Webb’s songs succeed because he pens a great lyric with a lush musical arrangement. Guy Clark’s songs offer simple, unpretentious, hurtful stories, while Webb’s songs are rooted in country ballads with the twang removed. While Clark is still writing effectively about his personal struggles, Webb has nothing new to say.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, broadcaster and theatre director.

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