BY STEVEN ROSEN
For beautiful execution of a beautiful idea for a tribute/concept album, try The Beautiful Old: Turn-of-the-Century Songs. These mostly pre-phonograph-record-era songs, which range in period from 1823 (“Home Sweet Home”) to 1918 (“Beautiful Ohio” and “Till We Meet Again”), are definitely Americana. (They also were popular in Britain.)
Yet they aren’t thought of as “Americana” in the contemporary sense – they’re considered more a part of the Tin Pan Alley/music parlor/sheet-music tradition than the folk/blues one. They are pop – popular music of their time. (If there’s any artist of recent times who has championed them, it was Tiny Tim.) So Beautiful Old transforms our perceptions of them.
This project, the best of its type since O Brother Where Art Thou, is a partnership between executive producer Paul Marsteller and music producer Gabriel Rhodes, the son of Austin singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes and her husband Joe Gracey. The attractive packaging, in addition to lyrics, includes reproductions of artful original sheet-music covers.
Beautiful Old is dedicated to Gracey, who died of cancer in 2011. And among the artists participating are Kimmie Rhodes (three songs, including a poignant, dreamy version of the 1910 “A Perfect Day” with her son on guitar, melodica, pump organ and glass armonica – an antique instrument that is played with hands) and her daughter Jolie Goodnight (two contributions, including a spare mountain-ballad take on 1907’s “Silver Dagger” with rave-up violin work by Richard Bowden).
It’s amazing how direct these ballads are – and shocking when we see just how open these original composers were about expressing adult feelings of grief and remorse. It might make you a little embarrassed to live in the 21st Century when pop music means overproduced pandering and smugness.
For instance, 1854’s “The Dying Californian,” which A.L. Lee set to music from a letter about a man who died at sea en route to the California gold rush, unfolds like a slow-motion wake, sad but comforting. Carrie Elkin sings lead with Kimmie Rhodes providing soft, close harmonies and Bowden’s violin is exceptional. And Jimmy LaFave’s rugged-as-wagon-ruts voice is perfect for the poetic “Long Time Ago,” an 1839 song that equates lost love – and death – with nature and the landscape.
But there’s another, sprightlier side to Beautiful Old – one that uncovers and acknowledges the entertainment value of this period’s music. Such songs either reflected or commented upon the leisure-time activities of a pre-mass-culture era. And Beautiful Old has found just the right wizened artists – especially British artists – to cover such songs. It’s also found a Most Valuable Player to support them all – Garth Hudson. His old-fashioned parlor piano provides rustic grandeur to Ohio native Kim Richey’s lovely cover of 1918’s “Beautiful Ohio.”
Richard Thompson, who has toured with his 1,000 Years of Popular Song revue, is the pleasurable principal singer of the 1895 “The Band Played On,” which tells of Matt Casey waltzing with “noise and vigor” with the strawberry blond he met at Saturday night balls. Christine Collister’s backing vocals and Hudson’s accordion, among other contributors, provide for a politely rollicking arrangement.
Graham Parker’s craggy voice, with its scary, malevolent edge, is appropriate for the 1867 “The Flying Trapeze,” which spins a bizarrely funny tale of how a daredevil gymnast stole away the singer’s girlfriend and made her “assume a masculine name” to tour with him. Hudson’s accordion and piano contribute to the lively accompaniment.
And in a genius choice, Dave Davies – he of the beery, cheery “Death of a Clown” – reclaims the theatrical/musical side of the Kinks with the dashing yet sensitive “After the Ball” from 1892. His woozy, propped-up voice is full of memories of British village greens past, and he’s helped immensely by accordionist Hudson, tinkling pianist Michael Thompson, and Gabriel Rhodes on tenor banjo and ukulele, among others. One hopes his brother is listening – this could inspire Ray.
One also hopes Ian Whitcomb – the British rocker who so early on championed historic popular song – is listening with a smile. This is a project he would love – as will many people who get a chance to hear it.