Tom Paxton, |
Comedians & Angels
A new release from maestro Tom Paxton is an occasion to be savoured. Paxton has been a stalwart of the folk and protest genre for more than a generation, and reaching his three-score-and-ten has dimmed neither his voice nor his talent for writing.
Most of the 15 musical treats on offer here come exclusively from his wonderful mind, pen and guitar, and it contains some genuine gems.
The majority of the tracks here he classes as love songs, and he dedicates them in the main to his wife and daughters. This is particularly true of "What a Friend You Are" and the beautiful "Home to Me is Anywhere You Are." His soft, beguiling voice gives such songs a lovely poignancy and makes us think we could sing them as well for our loved ones.
He reminds us of his earlier works with a new rendition of "When We Were Good." Listening to this gives pause for thought about his canon from the almost traditional "Rambling Boy" and the comical song about the clockwork toy whose title escapes me as I write -- was it "Jennifer's Toy"? A generation grew up with Paxton and his music, and now this CD offers that experience to a new generation. This selection of songs would be the ideal antidote to our manic world of speed, noise and triviality. After a hard day at the office or wherever you earn your crust, come home, chill out and listen to the lyrics, cadences and simple arrangements of this album.
"The First Song is for You" is one of my favourites here. It is deceptive in its simplicity, but listen to those great words of true meaning and the almost invisible musical sounds. Anyone with daughters named "Jennifer & Kate" should learn this song -- or else learn it and substitute your own children's names. On "Bad Old Days" he recalls days we all have experienced in our past, but he manages to put them to music once again, showing that the best songs are those about feelings we have all felt.
He closes a brilliant new album with the title track as he recalls the artists of the past and the joy of performing. Long may Tom Paxton continue to perform, write and record.
by Nicky Rossiter
As a songwriter, Tom Paxton hoes a rough row. He has been married to the same woman for decades, he has a loving relationship with his children, he has legions of friends, he does not abuse substances and he's had a successful career stretching all the way back to the early 1960s. In other words, he's a happy man. That's not the way to be a creative artist, Mr. Paxton. Wherever he is now, Hank Williams, who died at age 29, the victim of alcohol, drugs and lovesick blues, must be scratching his balding head.
OK, in absolute contrast to Williams, Paxton doesn't write songs of psychic torment, or at least not in a long while (the un-autobiographical "Last Thing on My Mind," his most famous composition, doesn't exactly express uplifting sentiments), but he not only keeps at the writing -- not to mention the performing and the recording -- he keeps at it prolifically. Over his extended stay on the American (and British) folk scene, Paxton has piled up so much goodwill that his albums threaten to be reviewer-proof. Even if you wanted to, how cold an eye and ear would you need to possess to trash one?
I say that so you will understand that when I say Comedians & Angels is a good album, I'm not just saying Tom Paxton is a good guy. He is also a songwriting pro. So if he's not struggling and, at age 70, isn't writing about hard times and heartaches, he's still writing well with what he has, which is his understanding of the essential role that love of family and friends plays in life as it should be lived.
Yes, I know, that's the subject of approximately three zillion sappy songs. Paxton's songs aren't sappy. They are honest, true and wise, and on the sweet -- as opposed to greeting-card -- side of sentimental. Rare are the humans who could write something titled "You Are Love" and fail to lose me not so much at the first note as at the first scan of the title. Maybe it's that melody, so pretty that it could draw a tear out of a stone. And Jim Rooney's sensitive production, focused on a small Nashville studio band attuned to Paxton's distinctive approach (including that warm tenor that, if not quite what it was, still sounds pretty damn fine), surely helps.
I have two particular favorites, however. One is the title song, in which Paxton returns to a periodic theme of his writing: the folk singers who were his friends or influences. His first Elektra album (Ramblin' Boy, 1964) featured "Fare Thee Well, Cisco," a tribute to Cisco Houston, who'd died three years earlier and was already being relegated to footnote as Woody Guthrie's ramblin' pal, end of subject. "Comedians & Angels" recalls the Village scene, long ago passed into legend and a song tradition of its own, and evokes memories of good times with the Clancy Brothers (all but Liam now gone) and his particularly close friend, the late Dave Van Ronk.
But the real stunner here is "Beautiful Upon the Mountain," inspired by Isaiah 52:7, with the heart-stopping refrain "How beautiful upon the mountain / Are the steps of those who walk in peace." The song celebrates the movement for peace and civil rights in the 1960s, with an implicit call for the revival of a patriotism -- as urgent today as at any time in the history of our beloved and battered nation -- based in love of social justice and abhorrence of war. Paxton is too good a writer to preach, but if this isn't a hymn, I don't know what a hymn is. I do know that it has been playing nonstop inside my head ever since I heard it for the first time two weeks ago. Yeah, the man still has it.
by Jerome Clark