- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

Joan Baez

Dark Chords on a Big Guitar

Koch Records

Joan Baez easily could have walked away from music long ago, content with having given voice to the generation of strife and conscience we call the ‘60s. She still has more to say, however. In her current CD produced by Mark Spector — her first new studio recording in six years — Miss Baez finds a comfortable place for her haunting vibrato amid the sparse arrangement of a rock ensemble. Her voice has aged like old brandy, flowing easily and warmly through the spaces of the spare arrangements.

An artist who has championed many obscure singer-songwriters throughout her four decades onstage, Miss Baez here covers 10 songs by eight artists, including some of today’s most compelling alt-country voices. Among the cuts are two songs from co-writers Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and two from Greg Brown, whose lyrics in “Rexroth’s Daughter” give this disc its title.

Steve Earle’s “Christmas in Washington” has the folkiest sound and the most obvious political messages, harking back to Miss Baez’s activist days. Fittingly, it closes the recording.

As consistently contemporary as these evocative songs are, Miss Baez still manages to remain relevant to the same audience that greeted her on the Newport Folk Festival stage in 1959 when she was 18. In the bluesy “Rosemary Moore,” written by Caitlin Cary, for example, she sings, “Take out your hearing aid/we’ll go have a drink.”

“Caleb Meyer,” written by Miss Welch and Mr. Rawlings, is a murder ballad using a call-and-response motif. Traditional in sound, it has a “modern” twist in that Meyer is a rapist, killed by his victim in a song of female empowerment.

Natalie Merchant’s “Motherland” indicts gluttonous growth and greed. “Wings,” by Josh Ritter, urgently details a dream’s haunting images. In “King’s Highway,” by Joe Henry, the protagonist is a highwayman expressing remorse or, perhaps, disbelief, at having committed murder. Yet it also evokes an Everyman theme: “I am just like many more/who lie in bed, still and numb/awake enough that I can see/just how dark it has become.”

(For new fans and those wishing to rediscover Miss Baez in her prime, Universal Music Enterprises recently released a boxed set of six complete Baez albums from 1972 through 1976 on A&M; records, which follows Vanguard Records’ series, begun in 2001, of CD reissues of each of the 13 Baez albums recorded on the label between 1960 and 1972.)

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