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Music Review: Arlo Guthrie – In Times Like These

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I think sometimes that Arlo Guthrie has a sense of humour slightly different from the rest of us. I mean what other performer would release a disc where he's accompanied by a full orchestra, and then promote it by going out on a "Solo Reunion Tour" called "Together Again At Last", where for the first time in some twenty years it's just him and his guitar.

Somewhere beneath all that white hair there's a little voice saying, that'll mess with them some. Well, I guess we can't expect much less from the man who expresses his disappointment at not turning out to be the threat to society that he had originally hoped. It seems somewhere along the line the dangerous hippie radical became a folk musician in the real meaning of the world and starting playing the music of the folk.

At a typical concert you'll hear his old opus about being better safe than sorry coming through Customs with illegal substances "Coming Into Los Angeles" while the very next song could well be his arrangement of an old traditional number like "St. James Infirmary" Of course, his dad Woody and his buddies were much the same; one moment singing songs about the plight of the dust bowl farmer and the next some traditional tune from a distant part of the globe.

In Time Like These.jpgSo we probably shouldn't be surprised anymore at anything Arlo pulls out of his hat. Still that didn't stop me from being taken slightly aback when his forthcoming release on Rising Sun Records In Times Like These showed up in the mail: Arlo Guthrie and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra performing a retrospective of his music.

Arlo Guthrie and a Symphony Orchestra just wasn't a combo that I had ever really considered likely, but according to Arlo's notes for the CD he'd been trying to make it happen for years now. As he explained in an interview I read, his mother had been an original member of the Martha Graham dance company and he had grown up listening to classical music and symphonic arrangements almost as much as he had folk so it was just as much part of his life as any other music.

The mixture of folk music and orchestration is not as far fetched as you might think; in fact it was quite common back in the 1940s and 50s. I've heard recordings of Pete Seeger, The Weavers, and others being accompanied by full orchestras from that period. Admittedly it was a bit disconcerting to hear something like "Follow The Drinking Gourd" with swelling strings et al, but you could get used to it, maybe.

I have to admit to some trepidation when I put the disc on, I don't think I would have been able to deal with Arlo Guthrie's voice accompanied by Las Vegas type strings or similar types of arrangements. I should have known better than to think that Arlo Guthrie would allow that to happen to his music. He couldn't have made that any clearer when he wrote in his booklet that this wasn't pop fluff arrangements that could be played on any synthesizer, but symphonic arrangements arrived at over years of work that will challenge the skills of senior orchestral musicians.

Most likely the song that people know Arlo best for is "City Of New Orleans" by the late Steve Goodman so it seems like a good one to examine closely in terms of these new arrangements. James Burton's arrangement is quite simply innovative and perfect. I think you could probably listen to this without vocals and feel the same emotional depth that had originally been embodied into the lyrics by Steve Goodman.
Arlo Guthrie.jpg
Instead of the string dominated sound we have grown accustomed to in this John Williams dominated age of orchestrations, Mr. Burton has made judicious use of the whole orchestra for his arrangements, with the woodwinds and the brass taking their share of up front work alongside the violins. There's a beautiful horn accent that's repeated as a motif throughout the piece that could easily be a train whistle but isn't obvious enough to be hackneyed.

That's not to say that when strings are called for he doesn't use them, they do after all made up amongst themselves nearly half the orchestra with double bases, cellos, violas, and violins. But thank goodness they never swell – they play as they are meant to play, carrying the melody and moving the story along. I think Steve Goodman would have been very pleased.

The same care is given to each song and some of the touches are wonderful. The clarinets on "St. James Infirmary" help give the song the jazzy, underworld feel that it needs to be effective, and the delicate string work on the title song "In Time Like These" is a testimony to the power of understatement that arrangers throughout the world would do well to emulate.

If there is a weakness in the whole production, it unfortunately lies with Arlo. His strength as a vocalist is his ability to imbue his songs with character and to let the emotion in his voice shine through. But it is a voice best suited to small arrangements and at times seems on the verge of being overshadowed by the orchestral accompaniment.

Perhaps it's because the concert was recorded live and the proper balance just escaped them on the occasions when the full orchestra was playing. But it wasn't as if you couldn't hear Arlo, it was just as if his voice was too thin for the music. It's not every song that this happens on, but when it does happen it is noticeable enough to be uncomfortable. You don't want the people you like musically to seem off or to even point it out, but unfortunately this is one of those occasions.

On the whole, In Times Like These is a remarkable achievement that pays a fitting tribute to one of the significant singer songwriters of the past forty years. For those of you, like me, who appreciate and admire the work of Arlo Guthrie, you will find much to enjoy in this CD.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.