Various Artists: Four Decades of Folk Rock

various_fourdecadesoffolkrockAn expansive take on “folk rock”

Time Life Records was founded in the early ‘60s as a division of Time Inc., but sold off in 2003 to operate independently as part of the international conglomerate Direct Holdings Worldwide. Though no longer a part of the Time media empire, the label continues to be a terrific voice in the music reissue market, selling its wares via the Internet, standard retail channels, and most famously through television informercials. The latter may give Time Life the taint of earlier reissue labels like Ronco and K-Tel, but the high quality of their sets puts them firmly in league with the cream of the reissue industry. The label scored a coup last year with the first official reissue of the Hank Williams “Mother’s Finest” radio transcriptions, and their more recent anthology of music from the civil rights movement, Let Freedom Sing, was a tour de force.

This 2007 4-CD set explores the combination of folk and rock that sprang from the intersection of the late-50/searly-60s folk revival and the arrival of the Beatles on U.S. shores. Each of the four discs covers a decade (more or less), starting with the ‘60s on disc one and Dylan’s explosive electrification of “Like a Rolling Stone.” It might have made more sense to open with the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which hit the charts in June of 1965, but the compilation producers’ focus on Dylan pegs Newport as the pivotal moment; the Byrds are represented by their end-of-65 hit of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Notable in their absence are the Beatles, Beau Brummels and Simon & Garfunkel. The ‘60s could easily have consumed all four discs (and virtually do so on the Folk Years set), so the producers chose to cover a generous helping of familiar bases and flesh out the first disc with brilliantly selected album sides by Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Jefferson Airplane, Tim Buckley, The Band and Tim Rose. The latter’s oft-covered “Morning Dew,” is particularly impressive in this original incarnation.

Folk rock passed to singer-songwriters in the 1970s, the most commercially successful of which were more socially passive than their 1960s antecedents. There was still discontent to be found, but it was found on the more expansive and less commercially mainstream FM dial. Arlo Guthrie could lift a hit onto the charts with the non-contentious “City of New Orleans,” but his counterculture “Flying into Los Angeles” flew under AM’s radar. Disc two finds the social consciousness of folk rock’s first wave transplanted, post-Woodstock, into heavier arrangements and picking up progressive sounds from British acts Fairport Convention, Traffic, Thin Lizzy, Nick Drake, Steeleye Span and Pentangle. U.S. singer-songwriters are heard here, but some of the sharper edges, like Joni Mitchell and John Prine are missing.

The moribund ‘70s provoked a punk backlash by decade’s end, and the DIY aesthetic sparked a parallel movement of retro-pop and roots. The “Paisley Underground” in Los Angeles took cues from Gram Parsons, the Lovin’ Spoonful and Buffalo Springfield, and as imitation spun into innovation, the Bangles, Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade and Dave Alvin each found original footings. At the same time, a second wave of country outlaws began to chafe against the crossover aspirations of ‘80s Nashville, and unencumbered by mass commercial concerns, stretched their roots to the same folk sources from which their musical ancestors had grown. For a time the artists stayed underground, even as their songs, such as Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses,” became hits for others (Mary Chapin Carpenter in this case). In the next two decades, the underground would find more direct channels to its listeners.

By the ‘90s, the media landscape changing, and by the ‘00s the marketing landscape was quickly losing the friction imposed by major record labels. Music radio had all but imploded, replaced by individually programmed channels of a listener’s iPod, and streams of music found their way through film and television, commercials, on-line downloading (both legal and illegal), YouTube videos, and a wealth of Internet critics and bloggers clamoring to tout their latest discoveries. The directness with which artists could connect to listeners via MySpace returned the intimate fan connection of the ‘60s coffeehouse. Ironically, the underground flourished amidst the mass exposure of the Internet.

Though “folk rock” as a named genre is generally regarded as having only opened a brief window in the ‘60s, its influence trickled into many subsequent forms, as collected across discs two through four. It’s may seem like a stretch to apply the label to country-tinged works such as found on disc four, but there is a line through the singer-songwriters of the ‘70s, the roots movement of the ‘80s and the emergence of Americana (or at least its labeling) in the ‘90s. It’s that through-line, rather than a catalog of songs from mid-to-late ‘60s, that is this set’s offering. Transiting around from Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and Son Volt to the Band’s 1968 cover of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” on disc one completes an unbroken circle. Disc one gives a solid shot of nostalgia, discs two through four carry forward the producers’ theme and provide deep content for connoisseurs.

The 63-page booklet accompanying this set includes a lengthy essay by author Bruce Pollock and extensive song notes by ex-Rhino Records producer Ted Myers. Discographical details include recording dates and locations, personnel, and release and chart dates. Everything here is stereo except for tracks 4, 11, and 13 on disc one, and the mastering engineers at DigiPrep have done a fine job of knitting disparate material into cohesive sounding discs. If you can get past thinking the title implies four CDs of music from 1965-1969, you’ll be fascinated by the expansive view essayed here. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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