February 2000

Karla Bonoff - The Best of Karla Bonoff
Columbia/Legacy CK 65765
Released: 1999

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance **
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment **

[Reviewed on CD]Karla Bonoff’s 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 Bonoff’s "All My Life." Many renowned backup musicians contribute to Bonoff’s 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 Bonoff’s 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 Bonoff’s 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 Bonoff’s tunes suggests I’m not the only one hooked by some of the tunes’ hooks.

Yet something about the album is boring. I think it’s 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.

"There’s 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/Where’s 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 -- it’s difficult to imagine them, as it is to perceive "a world that can be sort of heartless." Contrast this with two lines from Paul Simon’s well-known "The Boxer": "Asking only workman’s 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 Krauss’s version of Bonoff’s "Lose Again" -- a peppy bluegrass affair that doesn’t belabor things. But when you read the lyrics along with Bonoff’s extremely slow, lumbering version, you see that it’s vague and, when metaphor enters the scene, it’s both mixed and clichéd: "The train’s gone down the track and I’ve 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 let’s look at something from 1995, by far the most recent date given for any of the songs on the CD: "Daddy’s Little Girl." "He was the calm in the storm/Daddy kept us warm/What will I do when he’s gone/How will I carry on," is the first verse. Then the refrain: "Yes I know when it’s his time to go/That I’ll have to grow up too/Oh can’t I stay right here/And be daddy’s little girl." This honestly expresses how typical people who like their fathers fear losing them, and many apparently find Bonoff’s 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 radio’s most-played song ever. I’ve even heard tell that when record companies survey people, they’re wanting to mass-produce the songs few people love or hate and that mostly get rated in the middle -- that means they’ll 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.