John Gorka,
Writing in the Margins
(Red House, 2006)

Veteran recording artist and stage performer John Gorka pretty much defines the "sensitive singer-songwriter," at least as that occupation functions in the early 21st century. Paul Simon may have been the first of the breed, and James Taylor was surely the second, at least in terms of fame, influence and record sales. By the 1970s, sensitive singer-songwriters were routinely called "folk singers," apparently because they played acoustic guitars and most performed solo -- though in fact that was only because they couldn't afford to hire rock bands. Most of them, who neither knew nor cared much about actual folk (traditional and tradition-based) music, wanted to be pop stars. A handful succeeded, and most of the rest are long gone and mostly unmissed.

Gorka, who endures, does know something about actual folk music, and his songs, in large part reliably introspective ruminations, are often set to mid-tempo melodies that could as easily harbor old-ballad lyrics. He boasts an ingratiating baritone voice and an artist's persona as -- what else? -- a yearning, gloomy romantic (albeit, when the occasion calls, a fine sense of humor). For what it is, if that's what you want, it's better than the bulk of the competition, if not as satisfying as Dave Knudsen's noirish masterpiece The Weeping City, which I reviewed in this space on 17 December 2005.

Still, I can't help noticing that the most striking pieces on Writing in the Margins are not the originals. When I first heard "Snow Don't Fall," I'd forgotten that the late Townes Van Zandt wrote it many years ago, and at first I assumed it was a particularly excellent Gorka composition. In that regard, fairness compels the observation that Gorka's musical chops are first-rate; "Snow" sounds like a Gorka song because Gorka makes it his own. Another winning performance of another superior non-original is of the late Stan Rogers' "The Lockkeeper," which I'd never heard before.

Gorka's own lyrics sometimes tend to the opaque and, at worst, to the arch and ostentatious. In "Broken Place," he writes:

That beautiful broken place, the strength of your greatest weakness
That usually goes to waste, plug in the blue eyed beacon.

Though I don't much care for that sort of thing, one is able to grit teeth and force tolerance because Gorka sings it (whatever "it" is) well and puts it to one of his patented sweet-if-somber melodies. Worse, however, is Gorka's tendency -- when he isn't being coy about his precise meaning -- toward the didactic. From "Arms Length," for instance, "Kindness is not weakness/Meanness is not strength." No decent listener will take exception to so morally astute an assertion, but jeez, dropped into a song the words sure put the clunk in clunkiness. As well, the cringe-inducing adolescent cliche once in a while eludes Gorka's common sense, including -- rather incredibly to me, given Gorka's manifest intelligence -- one "forever and a day." "When You Sing," set (I take it) to his idea of a black-gospel tune, doesn't lapse into an icky, sentimental chipperness only because, since it is that from the very first verse, it has nowhere to lapse.

On the other hand, "The Road of Good Intentions" is a decent protest song, its target America's suicidal Iraq adventure: "On the road of good intentions/All gets justified to hell." In a whole other vein, "I Miss Everyone" parodies a country honkytonk song with such perfect pitch that Gorka debunks one's implicit belief that efforts like these should be left to John Prine alone.

by Jerome Clark
19 August 2006

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