As an Eric Andersen fan of the early 1970s -- after his earliest work but in time for Blue River and Be True to You and a performance at Philadelphias (actually, Bryn Mawrs) famous and long-since-closed Main Point -- I find his recent release, You Cant Relive the Past, delightful and also annoying. It contains several excellent songs. Ambitious ones, too: 12 of the 13 are longer than four minutes, most over five. The last track, the uninteresting, inexplicably included only instrumental on the disc, "Possum Reprise," comes in at 1:18.
But Andersen, one of the original early-'60s Greenwich Village singer-songwriters, long ago earned the right to include whatever he wants to -- even if he occasionally exercises poor taste. And anyone would want to include "The Meadowlark," co-written with the late Townes Van Zandt. Built of tightly structured four-line ballad verses in a minor key and relying heavily on minor chords, Andersens voice backed up mainly with guitar arpeggio, it begins, "Darkness sparkles the edge of dawn like a heart thats turned stone cold/The ones I love are dead and gone and I am growin old/My heart is whisperin go back north, to the north I truly love/Id follow the geese but theyre heading south, so Ill follow the mourning dove."
True music to the ears of a folk-music lover like me! It incorporates folk musics simple chord structures with a simple, pleasing melody and a natural world that speaks to the singer. The same goes for the moving opening track, "Eyes of the Immigrant," also supported mainly by Andersens trademark steady guitar arpeggio. Its refrain is somewhat reminiscent of Woody Guthries "Deportees" and Paul Simons "American Tune," a very good thing.
That song provides an ironic lead-in to "You Cant Relive the Past," co-written with Lou Reed, whose voice joins Andersens in the four-line refrain, whose third line is different each time: "You cant relive the past/You cant relive the past/The dam is burst the acids spilt/You cant relive the past. Alternate third lines: "No mask could hide your liberty"; "You sit alone with your remote control"; "Your futures now just getting up"; and "Youre driftin' like a wooden doll."
"Magdalena," too, pulls me in with Andersens confident, straightforward folk technique. In this one, Robert Aarons clarinet and flute and Erik Frielanders cello ornament the melody. A tribute to cellist Ann Sheldon, who worked with Andersen in 1984 and later died in a car crash, it begins (after "Ooo ooo ooo ooo," included a bit obsessively in the liner notes), "Magdalena, you cant come back for me/Running in your long black cape/Magdalena, dont turn to look at me/I think the tears might stain your face." These lines are aptly echoed in the concluding verse: "Magdalena, now dont forget me/Running in your long black cape/Magdalena, dont try and reach for me/No turning back you cant escape." The cape easily reminds one of the classic "Long Black Veil," sung by Joan Baez, Mick Jagger, and others.
With several fine songs delightfully sung by Andersen and skillfully arranged, what annoys? Apparently owing to his early inspiration by rock n roll, which led him also to admire blues, Andersen keeps trying those genres. This time, recording the CDs several rock and blues tunes in Mississippi with aging blues musicians was supposed to do the trick -- "although Im not a blues artist," as he says in the liner notes. But something about Andersens style makes him a folksinger and not a rocker -- the careful enunciation is part of it. Noticing after almost 40 years at the grindstone that even his folk songs are slow and plaintive, he might consider staying with his strong suit for more consistently fine collections.
The rock and blues numbers here are not disastrous, but just as you cant relive the past, not all folksingers can cross over, no matter how strong an impulse from the past drives them to try.
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