BY STEVEN ROSEN
One has to laugh at the dark humor of the press release announcing this – it includes a quote from Bob Dylan that Hardin is “the greatest songwriter alive today” and then has the parenthetical qualifier “quote dates from when Tim Hardin was alive.”
Hardin, who died in 1980 of a heroin overdose at age 39, made a brief but immense impact as part of the late-1960s singer-songwriter movement. While he came out of the folk scene, he sang with the ethereal, bittersweet fluidity more akin to jazz (and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks) and perfect for his deeply melancholy, achingly heartfelt songs like “If I Were a Carpenter,” “Reason to Believe,” and “Red Balloon.” His period of musical relevancy was short – like a red balloon he just drifted off in the 1970s, even though he continued making albums.
This album puts together the kind of contemporary artists who should have an affinity for Hardin’s trancey, introspective work – Mark Lanegan, Okkervill River, Britain’s Smoke Fairies, New Zealand’s Phoenix Foundation and other, lesser-known contributors. It is not a star-studded tribute, which is a good thing. (Actually, performers representing a wide variety of musical styles covered Hardin in his heyday – Bobby Darin, the Four Tops, Nico, Rod Stewart and many more.)
Oddly, Hardin’s two most famous songs are the album’s least effective – Britain’s Sand Band deliver an enervated vocal and flat quasi-country-rock arrangement on “Reason to Believe,” while Smoke Fairies’ slightly electronic “Carpenter” renders a moody treatment with deadpan singing that under-dramatizes the song’s lyric.
But others are strong. Mark Lanegan, who has grown into a confident stylist of songs about need and longing, takes a Hardin song that seems optimistic – the gorgeous “Red Balloon” – and highlights the troubling, enigmatic reference to a “blue surprise.” As an acoustic guitar establishes the mood with minor-key notes and tuning, he brings new life to the song. Okkervill River’s “It’ll Never Happen Again” also is outstanding with its slow, drifting guitar solo. How can one band be drawn both to Hardin and Roky Erickson?
Among the other successes: Magnetic North’s “It’s Hard to Believe in Love for Long,” which also has a gentle electronic pulse behind the demure arrangement but still allows the singers to be expressive. Oregon singer Alela Diane’s “How Can We Hang On to a Dream,” which flavors a British traditional-folk arrangement – and singing – with what sounds like a synthesizer to lift up the title line. And young Icelandic male singer Snorri Helgason’s “Misty Roses” really captures that Sunday-afternoon-alone quality of Hardin’s voice.
Overall, it’s an album for quiet reflection and maybe sadness – nothing here rocks out. It feels true to Hardin, or at least to how we remember him.