Karla Bonoffs songs have been recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss, Wynona Judd, and other well-known singers. Ronstadt and Aaron Neville won a Best Pop Vocal Grammy Award for their 1989 recording of Bonoffs "All My Life." Many renowned backup musicians contribute to Bonoffs work: Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Kenny Edwards, Danny Kortchmar, and others. Some big names also sing with her -- Ronstadt, James Taylor, and Don Henley are a few of them.
Many of Bonoffs songs contain very catchy melodies. Such a one is the opening track of All My Life: The Best of Karla Bonoff, the new CD with 16 songs selected by Bonoff herself as representing the more than two decades of her career to date. That song, "Someone To Lay Down Beside Me," best known as a Linda Ronstadt single, was on Bonoffs first album, Karla Bonoff (1977). It sure is easy to get the refrain stuck in your head. The considerable list of performers who have covered Bonoffs tunes suggests Im not the only one hooked by some of the tunes hooks.
Yet something about the album is boring. I think its the arrangements relative sameness -- guitar or keyboard, bass, sometimes drums; much predictable phrasing; little in the way of sounds specially selected for individual songs -- combined with the lyrics narrowness of content and dearth of concrete images or original language.
"Theres somebody waiting alone in the street/For someone to walk up and greet," begins "Someone To Lay Down Beside Me." The astute listener might think, Could this be about loneliness? "Here you are all alone in the city/Wheres the one that you took to your side/Lonely faces will stare through your eyes in the night ." Loneliness is, of course, a fine topic for a song, but good writing provides an original and specific take, and this song doesn't. The closest we come to a concrete image is "the street lights are off." The "[l]onely faces" are not particular faces -- its difficult to imagine them, as it is to perceive "a world that can be sort of heartless." Contrast this with two lines from Paul Simons well-known "The Boxer": "Asking only workmans wages I go looking for a job/I get no offers, just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue ." Much more specific, that.
I very much like Alison Krausss version of Bonoffs "Lose Again" -- a peppy bluegrass affair that doesnt belabor things. But when you read the lyrics along with Bonoffs extremely slow, lumbering version, you see that its vague and, when metaphor enters the scene, its both mixed and clichéd: "The trains gone down the track and Ive stayed behind./But nothing can free me from this ball and chain ."
OK, you want to say, but those two are more than 20 years old, copyright 1977 and 1975 respectively. So lets look at something from 1995, by far the most recent date given for any of the songs on the CD: "Daddys Little Girl." "He was the calm in the storm/Daddy kept us warm/What will I do when hes gone/How will I carry on," is the first verse. Then the refrain: "Yes I know when its his time to go/That Ill have to grow up too/Oh cant I stay right here/And be daddys little girl." This honestly expresses how typical people who like their fathers fear losing them, and many apparently find Bonoffs own renditions of her songs to be the most "emotionally direct." So she has emotions and is willing to sing about them. That in itself does not make the lyrics less bland and prosaic.
There has long been a large audience for pop music; however, as opposed to good writing, songsmithing á la Paul McCartney has wider appeal than the genius of John Lennon. Witness the song "Yesterday" being radios most-played song ever. Ive even heard tell that when record companies survey people, theyre wanting to mass-produce the songs few people love or hate and that mostly get rated in the middle -- that means theyll sell like Kool-Aid. If you value melody and self-expression far more than interesting, original, insightful lyrics about the world beyond the self, or if you are looking for songs to make pop hits for your record label, finish your Jello and go get All My Life: The Best of Karla Bonoff.
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