July 2001

John Gorka - The Company You Keep
Red House Records RHR CD 151
Released: 2001

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance **1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment **

[Reviewed on CD]Many folk- and acoustic-music lovers enjoy the recordings of John Gorka. He has a full concert schedule, and he has even provided prefatory remarks to a blues & folk encyclopedia. Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ani DiFranco, Patti Larkin, and other well-known performers seem to like his stuff, since they appear on many of his tracks. So I’ll have to be devil’s advocate here because I find his new CD, The Company You Keep, lyrically weak, much like his earlier Out of the Valley.

First, his strengths. Gorka has a good singing voice and a fine sense of melodies and chord progressions that make for catchy refrains and songs that are coherent and are his own, not transparent rehashing of others’ work. "Joint of No Return" rocks nicely, and when the refrain hits, the combination of the chordal modulation and rhythmic intensity is very compelling. Listening to the disc repeatedly to write this review, I often found lines stuck in my head. But the B-52s’ line, "Roam if you want to, all around the world," played constantly in Ford Motors TV ads does the same thing. Catchy lines are catchy, regardless of substance; they grab you whether or not the song says something definite and specific of lasting value.

I like the line, "Tell him to go to hell -- you already did," in "When You Walk In," about a woman whose husband has left her. But no specific event of the ended marriage, or individual trait or action of its participants, is related. In this context, it is noteworthy that, in a promotional list of 15 reviewers’ positive comments about the CD, a large proportion refer to such qualities as "insight," "emotive power," "celebration of humanity," "slice-of-life observations," and other vague notions that confuse the knowledge of things that anyone with understanding knows with strong songwriting, which involves interesting language, clear images, and concrete details.

"Never lived anywhere I didn’t mind leavin’ / I never knew any place I didn’t want to go / Short on the give, long on receiving / Never knew anything I didn’t want to know," from "A Saint's Complaint" is a good example of what I mean. Those words have a clever sound, and one may wish to call them "insight," but they contain no definite meaning. Don’t they translate into, essentially, "wherever I am, I’m glad to leave, and I don’t care where I go"? Doesn’t that suggest every place is the same? Does that mean Rome is the same as a South Dakota town where everyone works at a slaughterhouse? Isn’t that lack of insight rather than insight?

The next verse goes, "I liked the towns, I liked the people / The brown bugs in my bed I could’ve done without / I liked the taconite, slate roofs and steeples / A few crucial details of my whereabouts." It’s as if someone said to him, "Hey, this song needs details," so he cursorily tossed some in. Not integrated into the vague concepts surrounding them, they add to the sense of emptiness that grows on me the more I hear the song. The refrain goes, "Don’t think you should hesitate, nothing comes to those who wait / Once I heard the saint’s complaint; he said / ‘Good things come to those who wait.’" It says both that one should and should not hesitate. Or perhaps it means you shouldn’t, since saints are people who try too hard whereas Gorka offers "insight." This suggests confusion rather than a compelling mystery with possible solutions provided in the song. And hesitate with regard to what? We are not told.

One aspect of the performances I find particularly annoying is the way Gorka belabors platitudes as if the listener would miss something important if he or she didn’t dwell an extended moment here. For instance, at the end of "A Saint's …" refrain, he slowly and lingeringly repeats "those who wait." Well, we heard it the first time, the cliché that good things come to those who wait; it deserves no more, and I, for one, feel nothing special except impatience upon hearing it again, only slower.

Part of the charm and power of folk music, traditionally, is that it does the opposite: It presents rich and dramatic concrete details matter-of-factly, as if they were mundane facts of life -- without belaboring them, without sentimentalizing them. That keeps the listener engaged and thinking about the details’ significance for him- or herself. Pushing emotion on the listener overtly is a common mistake in this trade, but it is compounded when the lyrics don’t justify the emotion.

Nice try, but no cigar.