Monday, September 20, 2010

White Shoes and Landmark (or, 1982 was a good year)

Forget what I said here, White Shoes (1982) is Jack Hardy’s best album. It’s hard for me to say now why my first couple of efforts at appreciating it didn’t do the job. It just sounded like a busted extension of Landmark’s (1982) production values to me. But the more I’ve listened to it, the less easy it is for it to fade into the background. The songs are on average better than Landmark’s, the title track is one of his best-ever ballads, and the hooky production combined with some unusually ambitious singing (relative to this period in his career, not to Omens (2000), which contains his greatest vocal performances), and even some rock and roll howling, generates some fantastic heat, especially on the tracks that bookend the CD, “Broken Heart” and “The Subway.” The former is a nasty folk-rock song, hooked around the line “I like you far better with a broken heart” and featuring some beautifully chiming chords and slow rock beat. The latter sounds like one of the Byrds’ (or even the Beatles’) more psychedelic numbers, combined with some Dylanesque fancy and Elvis Costello-ish bile in the lyrics, whose refrain sounds like a mockery of the Arthurian stories whose gentility and courtly romance Hardy has drawn from throughout his career: “get off your high horse / and who the hell knighted you anyway?” In between, there are blues-rock, country, and folk songs that rank among his best.

I compare White Shoes to its predecessor, Landmark, because, as noted above, the production style is quite similar. Never before or since these two albums has Jack Hardy put so much effort into making his songs come to life, or at least that’s the illusion that they invoke. The signature sound of the album is the male harmony singing, which is something that appears now and then on all the early Hardy albums, but never more often or more effectively than on Landmark and White Shoes. Short of the Roches, Jack’s bassist brother Jeff is my favorite Hardy harmonist. On Landmark, in particular, the male harmonies are all over the album, and they give the album a strangely warm feel, like mariners’ hymns, like folk-rock Schooner Fare. The two albums were recorded with a lot of the same musicians, including Jeff Hardy on bass and Frank Christian on lead electric guitar. The drummer on White Shoes isn’t noted, but it sure sounds like Howie Wyeth, who played on Landmark. A lot of the heat on both these records is due in no small part to Wyeth and to Christian, whose lead guitar work, especially on Landmark, sounds a little like Mark Knopfler or maybe Robbie Robertson from The Band. Christian is a great songwriter himself; check out Nanci Griffith’s version of “Three Flights Up” or his own recording of “Where Were You Last Night?” The drumming is some of the best I’ve heard on Jack’s albums. Listen to the way Howie Wyeth’s power drumming, along with some choice guitar playing, works against the slowly sung, harmonized refrain on “Citizens,” a song that argues that, not only are the migrant illegal workers not citizens, but neither are the farmers who employ them and, just maybe, the rest of us aren’t either. I’m not entirely convinced by that, but Wyeth and Christian help him make a pretty strong (musical) case.

Even by this man’s high standards, I think White Shoes is among his best collections of songs; I’d put it in the top 5, maybe top 3. Thematic coherence is provided by a familiar idea—anger, if not outright hostility, toward a member of the opposite sex—turned a few different ways. There are clever turns of phrase, aphoristic snaps and crackles, and some creativity and detail in the one narrative song, “Incident at Ebeneezer Creek.” With its blues-rock stomp and political lyrics, “The Circus” makes me think of Dylan’s “Lonesome Day Blues." “The High Line” is countryish and fun. There’s some great wordplay throughout “Femme Fatale.” As already mentioned, "Broken Heart" and "The Subway" rock. And the title track. Did I mention the title track? I’ve joined audiences at the Postcrypt Coffeehouse to sing quietly along with this song several times, including once a couple of years ago, as mentioned here.

Landmark is real good, maybe my second favorite Hardy album, or third after Omens or Civil Wars (1994). The opening track, “The Inner Man,” inspired by a story about Hardy’s favorite Irish poet, Clarence Mangen, features a hooky acoustic guitar part and solid drumming. “Citizens” comes next and, with its steady, rocking pulse (not something I usually associate with Jack Hardy) and Mark Knopfler-esque lead guitar part, it is reminiscent of early Dire Straits, a band that was pretty popular in the early 1980s. After that comes “Nobody Home,” and it may just be the best thing on the album in terms of how the production works with the song and the singing. The hissing wind that blows through the song sounds hauntingly close to Jack Hardy’s voice, and it echoes the sadness in the words, especially when the harmonies call out, “adieu, mon ami.” Later comes one of the man’s greatest moments, “The Tinker’s Coin,” with its tin whistle melody, slowly strident drumming, and flourishes on the fiddle and electric guitar. And “Wheelbarrow Johnny” tells the story of a 49er who winds up without any gold, but still makes good by building wheelbarrows for the other gold-seekers. There’s a good guitar lick to that one, usually played with the fiddle duplicating the melody, and those male harmonies again.

I just wrote an entire paragraph about a Jack Hardy album that barely touched on the lyrics. With the possible exception of Omens, I don’t think I could do that convincingly about any of his other records. I would pay money to hear Jack Hardy sing his songs in front of an audience in full confidence that I would be moved. But when it comes to listening to his albums, I’m more discriminating. And Landmark and White Shoes are at the top of the stack, with their careful arrangements accenting the great songwriting that, with this guy, is a given. Omens and Civil Wars are close behind those two, along with The Cauldron (1984) and his two most recent ones, Noir (2007) and Rye Grass (2009).

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