Don McLean,
Rearview Mirror:
An American Musical Journey

(Starry Night, 2005)

Rearview Mirror is a two-disc hybrid of a type receiving increasing attention by those tasked with marketing music: the audio CD/DVD twofer. Most of my remarks herein will be confined to the audio, though I will state for the record that the DVD (largely concert footage) is competantly done, with only occasionally questionable camera angle choices and with the sort of sterling audio work one has come to expect from a digital product.

The insert is a bit of a disappointment, as it is difficult (or in places nearly impossible) to locate data on supporting musical personnel (even the splendid Nanci Griffith was tough to find credited). I will also note that there are a handful of albums in my (rather extensive) collection that I consider to be essentially perfect; not a bad cut on them, and I cannot think of a way in which they could have been improved upon -- Don McLean's original American Pie is one of that select company. These observations about my taste in hand, then, we move forth.

A general observation as we begin: the set is about evenly mixed between covers and original tunes, apparently in the attempt to frame not only McLean's work, but the musical influences upon it. We open with a cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" -- not for the last time in this review, I will observe that the song has not prospered in its new treatment, paced much too slowly and overproduced with strings that undermine the simple sentiment at the heart of the ballad. A live version of McLean's wonderful "Vincent" follows, and we plow forth past "Wonderful Baby" to a rather odd cover of "Love Me Tender" (with the Jordanaires!) that is plodding and seems to lose its way, though nowhere nearly as badly as the next tune. I'm not at all sure what McLean was trying to accomplish with his frightening cover of "(It Was) a Very Good Year," but I am sure that it makes Rod Stewart's work in this vineyard masterful by comparison; we're in Piano Bar From Hell/Golden Throats territory here, my friends, and I feared for the rest of the disc. Luckily, the moment passed.

Redemption began with McLean's interesting cover of the Marty Robbins classic, "El Paso," with some clever vocal choices and some inspiring acoustic guitar work. Next on the comeback trail was a sweet cover of Roy Rogers' immortal "My Saddle Pals & I," which featured some splendid pedal steel work and even a bit of well-placed yodeling. A little ground is lost in the way-too-slow reading of "And I Love You So" (though this was redeemed somewhat by the always wonderful vocal harmonics by Griffith), and McLean again threw himself with a will into the task of attempting to cover one of the greatest pop ballads of all time, Roy Orbison's "Crying" -- this attempt had enormous heart, but was unbearably slow and overproduced, totally derailing what has to be one of the most amazing closes ever written for a popular song.

The disc follows with a truly inspired four-song set of original McLean material and a Jimmy Rodgers cover. Here, the framing is right, with leaner production and better tempo choices, although the amazing McLean song "Empty Chairs" is yet a bit slow for my tastes. The Rodgers tune "TB Blues" is one of the best on the disc, a rolling 4-bar excursion into the angst of the era. This acoustic set closes with "Magdalene Lane," an underservedly lesser-known McLean piece served exceptionally well.

A brief electric set, featuring the edgy rumination "Infinity" and the ramped-up screed "Prime Time," serve to remind the listener that our quiet folksinger has both the ability and inclination to take a harder edge when the material warrants it. This is followed in turn by the studio version of "American Pie" -- I'm sure that McLean must have anguished over which version of this iconic work to use, but the choice made was not the wrong one. It leads, oddly, to one of the strangest of McLean's songs, the jagged paen to a fallen princess in "Run Diana Run." This in turn leads to the set closer, a sweet ballad penned by Jackie McLean, "You've Got to Share."

This, then, is McLean's American Musical Journey. Though wildly uneven, it should be applauded for its willingness to take on the material and celebrated for its best moments, like the later acoustic set, the twin Rogers/Rodgers covers, and the timeless "American Pie." Fans should own the album, but those who think of McLean as merely the one-trick pony of the acoustic singer/songwriter set should give this a listen as well. It is the work of a man who loves music, and those who make it.

by Gilbert Head
8 July 2006

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