Christine Lavin is one charming FolkZinger

Posted by Al Barger on September 29, 2005 05:53 PM (See all posts by Al Barger)

Miss Christine has a long and interesting sounding history, but she caught my attention with this album title FolkZinger, which suggests wit rather than harangue, and a song titled "(I'm a) Card-Carrying Bleeding Heart Liberal." We'll get back to that one.

Christine Lavin records for Appleseed Recordings, a company "dedicated to exploring the roots and branches of folk and world music, and sowing the seeds of social justice through music." She counts Ramblin' Jack and Arlo Guthrie among her labelmates.

In fact though, most of this album isn't really political at all. For one thing, she's got a really nice reading of the Beatles classic "All My Loving." This recording feels seductive, more conducive to putting someone in the mood than the original. I don't know that it's an all time classic, but it's the best Beatles cover I've heard in a while.

I don't mean this in the bad way in might sound, but this record has NPR written all over it. I don't know if she's been on the Prarie Home Companion show, but I could especially imagine the "Chicken Soup" story slotting right in. In theory, it's not that much of a song per se, in that it runs over nine minutes, and it's mostly narration rather than melody.

But she's telling such a witty story that it works. I don't know if it'd have the staying power to reward many repeated listenings, but it certainly rates a listen. Indeed, it'd probably take at least a couple of good listens to decipher the hilarious complications by which this lament about junk inspirational emails becomes a chicken soup for the soul story itself. She's got an "Alice's Restaraunt" thing going on here. Though it theoretically has only marginal specifically musical appeal, I've listened to this eight or ten times, and it's still going strong for me.

Personally, I'm most taken by the story of her aloof patriarchal workaholic lawyer grandfather, and the one and only time in memory that he was just "One of the Boys." It's actually a pretty catchy tune, but more notably an exceptional character sketch. I just LOVE the details of his workaholism, sitting on the aisle at the opera so he can use the aisle lights to continue working. I like to think that I'm reasonably cynical, but she's plucking my heartstrings quite effectively here. This is just a beautiful piece of work.

There are actually only two overtly political songs here. "(I'm a) Card-Carrying Bleeding Heart Liberal" turns out to be pretty good and light hearted, though on reflection it's not particularly comic, as the album title might suggest. Turns out this was written by Ervin Drake, who among other things wrote "It Was a Very Good Year," which is one of my more favorite Sinatra songs.

She frames up this recording of the song nicely, bringing up the songwriting workshop class she'd been teaching to sing the song on stage as the Card Carrying Bleeding Heart Liberal Singers, with Ervin on her cell phone listening. They make a decently written litany of the resume of American liberalism. The bad side is that they did this with a pre-recorded backing track. It would have probably been considerably better with just one live person playing piano. Still, it's not half bad.

She allows herself just one crazed paranoid liberal rant, which is perhaps unfortunate as this is probably the best song on a pretty good album. "The Peter Principle at Work" has a really effective dramatic thrust, and the passion inspired her and Mr Drake to write a memorable and compelling melody.

The arrangement and performance of the song are particularly kickass. Christine herself does some relatively simple but highly expressive guitar picking. The martial drums work really well, and a Robin Batteau plays some striking violin over the ending of this. This song is so hot that I don't even mind her praising Michael Frickin' Moore. It's just that good.

Some of the rest of this is not quite as good, but she's got a delightful song about "Winter in Manhattan." It becomes especially good in the bonus version by an a cappella vocal group. This makes a tasty way to tie it off.

All in all, there are at least several excellent songs, some really good witty stories, and so much charm that even my George-Jones-listening right-wing NRA nutjob father can't resist it.

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