various artists,
Modern Day Troubadours
(Nettwerk America, 2004)

In my experience until now, anthologies with the word "troubadours" in their titles tend to be assembled recordings of 1960s folk artists or their latter-day equivalents. Folk music, however, is at best a distant inspiration for most of the young artists of Modern Day Troubadours, fewer than half of whose names I recognize. That says nothing about them, of course, only about my longstanding disengagement from the pop-music scene.

Mossback that I am, I am happy -- well, relieved, too -- to encounter an old friend: Johnny Cash's great folkish ballad "Give My Love to Rose" from his very early career. What it's doing here, though, I haven't a clue.

Beyond that, far and away the most interesting new song (from 2001) is Jay Farrar's unsettling apocalyptic anthem "Barstow," a composition Bob Dylan himself would envy for clipped, precise (if elegantly -- which is to say modestly -- surrealistic) lyrics about a dying, dystopian society that looks chillingly like our own. There's also Farrar's stoic vocal performance, like the testimony of a coldly fearless man on his way to the gallows. "Barstow's" barebones musical setting comes out of the more skeletal end of folk-rock, as does Grant-Lee Phillips's nicely conceived "Calamity Jane." Sondre Lerche's "Sleep on Needles" could have been something Donovan wrote and sang in one of his darker moments, maybe after it hit him that flower power wasn't going to work out quite as advertised.

On the other hand, the three opening cuts -- by Ron Sexsmith, David Mead and Ed Harcourt, respectively -- and a couple of others later in the mix are pretty deadly. Sappy and listless, they comprise the sort of blandly romantic pop-rock music whose true home is the soundtrack at your local supermarket. For no particular reason, I always associate it with the produce department.

by Jerome Clark
25 August 2007

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