Anne Hills,
The Things I Notice Now
(Appleseed, 2012)

The Things I Notice Now is the title of both a Tom Paxton song and an Elektra LP he released in 1969. Veteran folksinger and songwriter Anne Hills, who has performed and recorded with him, revisits the song and borrows the title on this album-length appreciation of a much-admired and well-liked composer.

Paxton was a Village folk-scene contemporary of, among others, Bob Dylan. He also is one of the very few still active (or even alive) decades later. In those days he wrote such enduring songs as "The Last Thing on My Mind" and "Ramblin' Boy," now occasionally mistaken for traditional ballads. He remains a particularly beloved figure among his generational contemporaries in Great Britain. Though relatively unknown here outside the small subculture of folk acts and fans, Paxton's name shows up in sometimes surprising places, such as in praise by modern Texas singer-songwriters who, so one would have imagined, had never heard of him.

In her new album (on which Paxton himself participates on three cuts) Hills eschews the well-traveled songs and revives a dozen obscurities. Though tastefully chosen, they aren't representative of the full range of Paxton's work, which prominently includes children's lullabies and jokey ditties. Things, however, concentrates on his political and lyrical songs, mostly folk-oriented but occasionally (as in the title piece) showing jazz and theater touches.

While Paxton (like Woody Guthrie, an early and continuing inspiration) has his share of throw-away songs, Hills has picked the ones most likely to be meaningful a century hence. As I type, the concluding cut plays, the beautiful "Every Time," first appearing on a mid-1960s Elektra album. I haven't heard it in quite a while, and it is a joy to be reunited with it. Even more happily, Hills's reading is perfectly pitched and immensely moving.

I've heard many Paxton songs over the years, but (to the best of my recall, anyway) only a few of these. Of those I recognize, I am pleased to note that Hills's interpretations do what only the most accomplished manage to do: fashion readings that stand on their own. In other words, they don't generate an all-too-typical response to tribute material: well, this is nice, but why should I listen to it when the original is available? Hills makes Paxton's material lovingly and memorably her own.

music review by
Jerome Clark

1 December 2012

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