Sliding into my best Casey Kasem voice, I pose a question to the pop geeks in the crowd:
How many pop or rock albums can you think of that include covers of more than one song from another album?
A few theoretical examples: Imagine if Get the Knack had included versions of two songs from Meet the Beatles, or if the first Beach Boys album had poached two or three songs from some Four Freshmen long-player.
Even on those hardscrabble early LPs British Invasion bands recorded before they knew how to write songs, the bands tended to spread out their borrowing so as not to steal too excessively from any one record.
(The debut albums by the Who and the Moody Blues include two James Brown covers apiece. I suppose those songs might have been shoehorned onto a single compilation album in the U.K., so technically that might count, though it’s just as likely the bands were working off 45s.)
One cover from a favorite album, like one quote from your favorite movie, is a tip of the hat to your influences. Two suggests that maybe you haven’t started speaking your own language yet.
Which brings us back to the eternally well-spoken Art Garfunkel, who drew two of the songs from Angel Clare from the same source — the Everly Brothers’ 1958 collection of traditional songs, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.
“Down In The Willow Garden,” on side one of Angel Clare, and “Barbara Allen,” on side two, are stately ballads of love and death, cut from old cloth and with an air of eternity about them. (We’ll get back to “Barbara Allen” in a later post.)
The narrator of “Willow Garden” makes the guy singing “Traveling Boy” seem like a sweetheart: He poisons his lover and runs her through with a sword before throwing her body in the river. For this he pays with his life, after it turns out that money will not buy his freedom.
(Joining the choir invisible is something of a running theme on Angel Clare. In addition to a couple sets of dead sweethearts, we’ll meet a dying old man, ponder a question involving dead souls, and hear about a little girl who is suggested to have passed into heaven. I have not deduced a pattern or central message to this surfeit of croakage, though I do not believe it to be coincidental. Be assured that Chief Inspector Clouseau is on the case. Anyway.)
Art sings this sordid tale with an air of inherent gentleness and no particular urgency.
Not that I expected him to growl like Bon Scott or anything … but he doesn’t sound tremendously invested in the proceedings. He sounds like he’s telling a tale out of an old storybook, one he knows well but that no longer shakes his soul, if it ever did.
Or, he sounds like he’s revisiting a song he used to sing in younger, hungrier days, and while it’s still embedded in his DNA, he just doesn’t approach it the same way any more.
Whatever the reason, I find “Willow Garden” to be pleasant but unmemorable, a genre exercise caught in polish and sheen, a song about a disembowelment that shows no blood. (The Everlys, with their piercing country harmony and simple instrumental backing, did it better.)
If Wiki is to be believed, Paul Simon lends harmony to parts of “Willow Garden,” while Jerry Garcia plays lead guitar. Simon acquits himself with grace, while Garcia — except for a flurry early in the song — is unrecognizable.
If you want to hear an old love-and-death ballad done with spirit and personality, find a good version of Garcia and the Dead getting lost in “Pretty Peggy-O.” Even better, I’ll give you one. You owes me nuttin’:
(Next up in Art for Art’s Sake: Still another famous performer provides grist for Art’s mill. Will it work out any better? Stay tuned.)