Joan Baez – Whistle Down the Wind
Proper Records – 2 March 2018
Much in keeping with 2008’s Day After Tomorrow album, this record shares its title with an included track written by Tom Waits. But instead of being an extension of the previous material, this song and album is in fine contrast from the off, with the narrator of ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ in a rueful and lamenting frame of mind, contrary to Tomorrow’s optimistic ‘I still believe that there’s gold at the end of the world’ lyric. But like on that song, Baez’s voice sounds great here, softening the edges of Waits’s burr, and with age and experience enough to create a vocal (much like on ‘Last Leaf’, the other Tom Waits-penned track here) with enough of an edge to pull off lines like ‘if I stay here I’ll rust’ and the depth to believe her when she sighs ‘I’ve grown up here now, all of my life / but I dreamed someday I’d go’. The gentler sound, with Baez’s characteristically classy guitar part replacing the bar piano of Waits’s version, suits this interpretation and the addition of pump organ and Janeen Rae Heller‘s superbly mournful bowed saw does the finely written song justice.
The sense of delving into the past (this album coincides with Baez’s final tour, which could explain the stance) continues into the second track, ‘Be of Good Heart’, written by Josh Ritter. This is a subtle and airy piece, with a neatly finger-picked line framing simple and acute statements like ‘all I know, is what I’ve known’ to create a straight up and effective piece of music that leads into the wildcard of the set. ‘Another World’ was released on the Anthony and the Johnsons EP of the same name in 2008, and it is a departure from the two tracks before it. There’s more attitude and anxiety on display, suggested by a sparse and cyclical percussion and percussive guitar arrangement that supports a song of sadness in defeat: ‘I still have too many dreams / I need another world / this one’s nearly gone’. Baez’s vocal stays steady through a contrary number that switches to regret in the second part, with lines like ‘I’ll miss the animals / I’m gonna miss you all’ more effective in their weariness. The avoidance of her signature highs results in a track that could be from a future Laura Marling album. It’s the most unexpected and startling song here, but it’s a strong one and sits perfectly sandwiched between ‘Be of Good Heart’, and the ominous but quite lushly arranged ‘Civil War’, a piano-led tale of domestic conflict from singer Joe Henry‘s 2007 Civilians album.
The second half of the album continues the theme of memory and reflection, with Mary Chapin Carpenter‘s ‘The Things that we are Made Of’. Here Baez slightly fleshes out the leanness of the title track from Carpenter’s 2016 album with twelve-string guitar, bass and piano, resulting in an almost waltz in place of the heartbreakingly lonely version sung by Mary. In a mood reversal, the song is almost positive, which arguably loses some of the power of the original, but it does lend the album a different expression in the middle section, which suits it well, especially when backed up to Zoe Mulford‘s tragic ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’. This piano-led topical narrative feels painfully and sharply contemporary (‘we argued where to place our blame / on one man’s hate or our nation’s shame’) and, along with ‘Civil War’, suggests a artist unwilling to let her role as folk singer and communicator dilute in any way at this point in her career.
Possibly the two strongest tracks on the album are saved for the last, starting with American singer Eliza Gilkyson‘s ‘The Great Correction’, which had me wondering if Chris Wood had heard it before writing his own very English ‘Grand Correction’ on his Handmade Life album, so similar are they in their messages. Baez’s version goes country with a strummed acoustic guitar hovering over a line up of electric guitar, piano, organ and upright bass. Her vocal here is full of energy and range, but it also lets the band create the kind of sonic landscape a song addressing the American Dream, railroads and war needs, that being expansive and ambitious, while maintaining the space her voice needs to remain in the foreground.
But best of all is ‘I Wish the Wars Were Over’, inspired by a Tim Eriksen version of the traditional song. Here the arrangement strips much of the sound back and focuses on Mark Goldenberg’s gut-string guitar, which plays an ancient sounding melody with a lute-like quality and brings an eerie natural reverb to Baez’s lone and vulnerable vocal. Here, like the other band members, who are just about on the peripheries, the memories are put aside along with the regret and sadness we have heard running through the other songs, in place of a simple repeated plea for the end of the conflict: ‘I’ll never be happy till my Billy I see / And I wish the wars were all over’. This one is very much hand in glove with the earlier ‘Another World’ in its starkness of arrangement and restricted vocal range. The effect is a powerful grip on the listener that gives them no room to veer away from the message at the core. A whole album of the technique would be too much, but this well sourced and delicately arranged set is too wise and experienced to make the mistake. The result is a concise, varied and totally engaging listen that invites repeated visits.
Joan Baez will undertake a lengthy 2018 world tour, including UK and Ireland dates in March and May – her last year of ‘formal extended touring’.
Order Whistle Down the Wind: http://smarturl.it/jb-whistle
Joan Baez: UK & Ireland Tour Dates 2018
13 – York Barbican – 0844 854 2757 www.yorkbarbican.co.uk
14 – Birmingham Symphony Hall – 0121 345 0600 – www.thsh.co.uk
16 – Glasgow Royal Concert Hall – 0844 999 990 – www.gigsinscotland.com
17 – Edinburgh Usher Hall – 0844 999 990 – www.gigsinscotland.com
19 – Belfast Waterfront – 02890 334455 – www.waterfront.co.uk
ROI 0818 719377 & NI 0844 8472455 – www.ticketmaster.ie
23 – Bristol Colston Hall – 0117 203 4040 – www.colstonhall.org
24 – Manchester Bridgewater Hall – 0161 907 9000 – www.bridgewater-hall.co.uk
26 – Gateshead The Sage – 0191 443 4661 – www.sagegateshead.com
28 – London Royal Albert Hall – 0207 589 8212 – www.royalalberthall.com
29 – London Royal Albert Hall – 0207 589 8212 – www.royalalberthall.com
For her full tour schedule please visit: http://www.joanbaez.com/tourschedule.html