John Prine – Standard Songs For Average People (With Mac Wiseman)

A double down on the theme of being really old, this is an album of twangy country covers with an 82 year-old tenor crooner. They’re all covers this time, and they’re all done in an extremely old fashioned 40s/50s style, so your main use for this one may well be to play over images of post-apocalyptic landscapes.

They’re all good tunes, but a good two-thirds of them are love songs or songs about Jesus, and you know how songs from the 50s songs matched up to the complicated lyrics that we listeners are accustomed to. And there’s no “In Spite Of Ourselves” to be found to bail out the record when it gets a bit much. And it’s a lot much. I dig the whimsical ones, namely “Don’t Be Ashamed Of Your Age” and “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine,” but I can’t abide by this recording as a whole. Or even as most of its constituent parts. There are even some lounge tunes with dobro.

It makes me feel like a jerk because the performances and the fact that he released a record of covers of old country songs makes it obvious how much he loves these songs, and the two of them don’t do a bad job of performing them, but it’s not for me. Maybe when I’m 60 and up. And what’s with all the backing vocals? Like a county fair in here.

 

4/10

 

LIVE: IN PERSON AND ON STAGE

 

Oh boy, another live album. I have about as much left to say as, I don’t know, John Prine. He’s still trying to belt out the tunes, but the pipes are going even if the tunes aren’t. Everything’s in a way lower registry, half the songs are shoehorned into duettism to help him rest a bit, and even the strumming still sluggish and old.

The song selection’s not the best here, either. Twelve songs, and four of them are from “Fair and Squaure,” which is both fair and square but also not my favourite selection (especially since one of them is “She Is My Everything” – nice that you love your wife, but I don’t). There’s also the tossed-off rockabilly version of “Spanish Pipedream” that he’s been opening his shows with as of late-period live albums, and “In Spite Of Ourselves” with Iris Demint turning her twang knob to full hick for some reason, and a sludgy rock version of “Saddle in the Rain,” and none of those yank my crank.

You know, John Prine’s not a complainer, and I appreciate that. I personally am a complainer, and it’s annoying, but it makes me feel better when I’m upset so I do it, but I’m not writing songs complaining, so there’s that. And I’m not complaining about my status in life, unlike an irritatingly large contingent of internet people apparently convinced that being white guys in North America is the worst thing that could’ve happened to them. You probably know who I’m talking about. If you don’t then just wait, they’re simmering bitterly beneath the lid of respectable society and you’ll hear from them soon enough. The most annoying thing about these people is that these were the same people who, two years ago, were libertarians telling everyone else to stop complaining. They expected other people to stop playing the woman card and stop playing the minority card and stop being victims. But now, as soon as they find a way that they can be the victims it’s a total 180 on the value of having a persecution complex and we should all take care of their comparatively minor issues. I know it feels nice to be part of something antithetical, but you can do far more by being a decent person. Of course, they’re not interested in being decent people; they’re interested in getting theirs. Well, here’s the thing: you’ve already got yours from the stork. That’s why you don’t get to play oppression olympics. It’s going to be alright. Your confirmation bias isn’t a pressing concern to the intelligent society you so desperately want to be a party to. No conclusion to paragraph!

On the plus side, it’s not as though the new songs are all bad (“Long Monday” in particular is pretty nice, just unspecial), and Josh Ritter (of all people) and John do a great slow version of “Mexican Home” that show the song for the sad tale that it always should have been. John’s still got some good stories (particularly one about being a mailman and hating Reader’s Digest, and one about why he doesn’t like writing collaborative songs) and he’s still charming when he delivers them. But really, this album is about what it sounds like to get older. At least, what I’ll sound like when I get older provided my ol’ eye tumours don’t decide to spread to my brain for no good reason before I’m 60. There you are, singing songs about how much you love your wife, scratchy voice, telling the same old stories. Only, of course, I’ll be far less wealthy and talented, so there’s also that.

The days of Prine are almost over. Great sadness! I’ll miss my daily installment of person with a soul. At least, I thought I would until he unexpectedly goes on a rant about how your flag decal DOES get you into heaven and you should be an accepting Republican. But seriously, what’s the deal with people who vote Republican? If they’re people, how come they vote Republican? Part of me is still filled with childlike incredulity that people would support people who are bad for both themselves and humanity. Aging is partly the process of accepting each other’s incompetence.

5/10

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John Prine – Fair and Square

Gather round, kids, as Uncle Prine relaxes in his reclining chair and tells you some more stories of folksy wisdom. At least he’s a happy old man; really this is the expected trajectory of the last few studio albums. This is his first in ten years, and while he’s still a consummate live performer, lyrically he’s getting increasingly doddering and musically increasingly calm and boring.

Actually, some humor is left, it’s just strangely confined to the two “bonus tracks” at the end – a poignant story about a guy who fantasizes he’s somewhere else while his wife berates him and a song about being too concerned with safety that has Prine and the studio musicians giggling throughout, but the album proper is both serious and trite. Prine’s still got some amused charm, but he wastes it on rambling about the beauty of true love, complaining about the Iraq war, a Kinkade portrait of an idealized small town, “I’m taking a walk / I’m going outside / I’m watching the birds / I don’t need a ride” – riveting stuff! He’s never been more subdued, although there’s a great, lively Rankin Family cover that stands out and a neat-o song called “Clay Pigeons” that’s a winner too, if not particularly catchy.

Don’t itch me badly, there’s no one I’d rather be bored by than John Prine. It’s still a fine album to listen to while you’re sitting on your back deck, but man is it ever senior music. The effort might be there, but with lyrics like “Constantinople is a might long word / Got three more letters than mockingbird” it’s sure hiding. But those two bonus tracks – hee!

My girlfriend and my roommate are both away for almost a week and I have even less to do than usual with my little evenings. This might be a nice bender, though it’ll more likely be a troubled, agitated bender.

6/10

John Prine – Live At Moncton

Yeah, I got boot legs, from the war, but you don’t hear ME complaining about it, even though it’s so hard and oh I hate my boot legs. Wet lawns imply rain, but the gardener might have watered the grass.

All that said, this sounds suspiciously sanctioned, because the recording quality is fantabulous, especially for what sounds like an outdoor show. Prine’s voice is definitely scratchy and going (also he had throat cancer back in the late 90s), but it translates into a raspy old charm that fits his friendly banter and witty songs pretty really well. Plus, the set-up’s optimal for Prine, who’s best at being a folkie and not a rocker or countryer: just Prine on vocals and guitar, a standup bassist, and a second guitarist on a variety of guitars. No drums or keyboards interfering with how great the songs themselves are, and no attempt to reinvent himself a la Bob Dylan. A lot of the songs are toned down due to the drumless setting but they all work, so shut up.

The stage talk is light, but fitting: Prine introduces “All The Best” as a song for if you’re invited to your ex’s wedding and asked to sing (“Always be prepared!”), laughs at the meaninglessness of “The Bottomless Lake” (mid-song), tell a story of how his brother got him started playing guitar, sing both parts of “In Spite Of Ourselves,” and makes a few comments about Canada and the Maritimes, which is weird considering I have no way to know where this show took place.

What he does do, however, is play for over two hours, and play nearly all the crowd favourites. If you learn one thing about music from this live album, learn this: being a musician is a job, and playing live is part of that. Unless you’re Bob Dylan, part of your job means giving the audience what they want, or they might not be your audience for long. But give them what they want and they’ll love you long time. Prine’s been playing “Hello In There” and “Illegal Smile” at every show for forty minutes, and he plays them here too, and sounds like he loves it. He doesn’t even punish the one asshole who obnoxiously¬† yells “Illegal Smile!!!” in between each of the last few songs. In fact, the plays 9 of the 12 songs from his debut here, and aside from a few new ones, he plays all the ones the crowd wants to heard and little else (except a few boring ones from “The Missing Years”). And he plays them all at least sounding like he couldn’t be happier. John Prine knows that he’s ultimately in show business, and for their part the crowd loves it, and him. It adds up to one of the bestest live records I’ve heard. And all because of my boot legs!

Of course, it’s still just a live album. Nothing new here, but this is a good time! Plus, I get a kick out of someone yelling “shut up!” and someone else during “Sam Stone.”

 

In case you’re wondering about the song/album breakdown, here it is:

JP – 9

DITR – 1

SR – 2

CS – 0

BO – 3

AL – 1

TMY – 6

LDAMB – 1

ISOO – 1

FAS – 2

UR – 1

I miscounted – 1

 

In other words, Mrs Marisa Osman’s eyes are fucking amazing and the people that are using them all day gives her gas and calls her ugly and old and gives her yeast infections, flu and spites in her food, coworkers, friends and remaining family, they hunted several hundred people now it’s thousands their target is 5 million that hear sounds in their ears, anyone that hears my voice is safe but you can’t tell anyone dont get call schizophrenia otheres that hear my children are pedophiles so we are racking them up and if you join us you must place money in my bank account at bmo wellington and dundas to anyone and i share it with love any way i can’t they are physically harming our agents , broken ankles to broken backs they wanted our government to compensate them for nothing attempting to build their own money and so they stole my eyes from the feds around the world and used me to death and i eat nothing and the men are all whites but we have the same bloodline ?

8/10

John Prine – Sessions At West 54th

Here come the live albums! Say, did you know that John Prine is a funny guy? It’s true, he is! His friendly existential humour is always zip zopping around when he’s playing live. Say, did you know that “In Spite Of Ourselves” was written for a silly movie? It’s true! The movie starred Billy Bob Thornton. Good ol’ grumpy Billy Bob! He made waves in Canada for saying something silly about Canadian fans because a silly radio host asked him about being famous when he had asked not to be asked about being famous (he was in town to play for a band that nobody would have cared about had the frontman not been Blow Job Thornton). Prine tells a funny story about that! Aw, he sounds like such a swell guy. The corridors of success have famous walls. Being good at stuff sounds like it’d be fun. I’ll just sit here drinking whiskey and criticizing.

You know what else? Our Prine-Stocker collaborative effort has created enough great songs that the two of us never need write another one to produce a great live show. This here album has a couple flubs (overly rockabilly versions of old songs) and one meh duet, but the rest is a true statement of the amazing art that either Prine or Myles has made.

Prine whips through about an equal number new and old songs, including a few duets, a ten-minute “Lake Marie,” and the greatest call-your-dad-before-he-dies Steve Goodman cover “My Old Man.” Christ, did that one make me misty-eyed. “I miss my old man tonight / And I can almost see his face / He was always trying to watch his weight / And his heart only made it to fifty-eight / And for the first time since he died / Late last night I cried / I was wondering when I was gonna do that / For my old man” – JESUS CHRIST GUYS STOP IT.

I’m getting a bit tired of hearing “Hello In There” and “Sam Stone,” but that happens after three weeks of listening to John Prine every day. Plus, you get a few interviews with Prineypants that show off his humour and lovable charm. He’s a friendly-sounding everyman, except for the songwriting talent. The only unfriendly moment is the “The blind can take both of my eyes if they don’t mind the size…BUT IF THEY DO THEN FUCK ‘EM” during the last chorus of “Please Don’t Bury Me,” which was a bit out of character. But he makes up for it by laughing it off and playing another ten minutes of “Lake Marie,” so it’s all good. Good show, good show, move along.

8/10

John Prine – Souvenirs

Stately, sedate re-recordings of fifteen of his own songs. Pretty good, mostly because it’d be hard to screw these songs up. Earlier stuff dominates, including half of his fantabulous debut.

The best thing here is that, performance-wise, the production really gets what made these songs so great and doesn’t add a bunch of crappy 90s rock to ruin everything. Plus, Prine sounds pretty rad as a weathered old man. With his voice back in front of the mix we’re free to enjoy how earthy and wise he sounds. The focus is heavy on serious songs that meld well to being played acoustic, so don’t expect a lively “Everybody” or “The Bitch Is Back,” especially considering he didn’t even write the last one. He does play “Please Don’t Bury Me,” but that’s the only real mirth. The meaning of the songs stays about the same with an old man singing instead of a young man, and that’s because Prine was older than his years when he was 25. This album is just him catching up with himself, at least as long as he’s playing “Blue Umbrella” and “Far From Me” and avoiding the funyuns. The only exception to me is “Fish and Whistle,” which goes from sounding like a cheerful song about making nice with your dad (complete with friendly flute solo) into an old man’s sad reflection on his likely dead dad. Aw, now I’ve made myself sad.

I’m glad that it’s a studio recording, and it sounds lovely, but these songs already exist in more distinctive forms. Still, it’s more interesting than a compilation and cheaper than a sprawling yacht. I rather enjoy hearing old men sing softly; as if I didn’t feel bad enough hearing “Hello In There” again. I read a review of a JP album that described him as sounding “content with an consummated life.” Here at least he sounds seriously proud of all these little consummations. That sounds sexual, but you know what I’m getting at.

8/10

John Prine – In Spite Of Ourselves

JOh NPrine’s gentle recline into senescence continues with this collection of old, twangy duets. Listen up for all the excitement of sitting on the porch with an old man having some lady friends over to sing some country songs. Old-timey ones too, nothing like the country songs that people like John Prine used to play. But if gentle, happy songs about the Grand Ol’ Opry and marriage and cheatin’ lovers.

They’re also all covers, with one exception, and there’s fifteen of them, so it’s one long, sunny afternoon drinking iced tea with those old people. Since they’re covers, there’s no clever Prine lyrics, or clever anything. Boy! It’s hot out here! Ah, the dust, look at it dance in the wind. Don’t stare at the sun too long, it can blind you, just like masturbation. More iced tea? No, we don’t do no drinkin’ around here, not after my brother Brosius got all messed up on hooch a score ago. Now, there’s three kinds of women out there: the ones that love ya, the ones that leave ya, and the ones that cheat ya. The most important thing is to know how to tell them from a glance. Now, Lucinda Williams over here, she’s gone cheatin’ eyebrows. Ain’t that right, Lucinda? No? Hesh your cheatin’ mouth. Cheaters have their wiles, boy, but lovers, like Iris here, she may not hurt you but you still gotta….gotta… what am I saying? Go get your Uncle Prine some more bourbon. Brosius? What’s that? I said bourbon!

The million star exception is the title track, the only track written by Prine, and a strong contender for the best song ever written by my man Johnny, and one of the best songs ever written by anyone. It’s just a duet about a loving relationship, but it conjures all the best of Prine’s personality and sticks it in a chorus that walks the narrow isthmus between the bay of cloying and the sea of glibness. It’s, somehow, an anthem more for antagonistic relationships – “In spite of ourselves / We’ll end up sittin’ on a rainbow / Against all odds / Honey we’re the big door prize / We’re gonna spite our noses right off of our faces / There won’t be nothing but big ol’ hearts dancing in our eyes” – than for normal ones, and that’s what gives it both its edge and its sweetness. The music is simple and catchy and walks the same line, with the one great musical hook on the entire album. The song is so far beyond anything else on the album that one suspects that Prine wrote and recorded the rest of the album to make a bitter point about how he’s above all these old country songs. Worth enough plays to be my #2 played song ever on iTunes (Arcade Fire’s “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is #1), and I highly encourage any couples looking for a song that won’t make them sick to their stomachs to seek out this one.

This album is like listening to a greatest hits collection by a one-hit wonder. You wait for the one great song, then you play it again, and the rest is completely disposable. Except that ISOI wasn’t a hit, because fuck you, culture. Of course, if Prine was trying to prove that his taste in old country music is boring, then mission accomplished.

5/10

John Prine – Live On Tour

AllMusic calls it an excellent introduction. Lies! Clearly a showcase for last two, mediocre albums. 1 from self-titled, 1 from DITR, all others from late-period albums. Songs all from different performances, so they fade out and back in every time, with no funny stories or anything. Attempt to showcase his two most recent albums, unfortunately

Picture Show – Lively performance, but meh

Quit Hollerin’ At Me – cranky old man rant, even yells “Put a sock in it” – most get off my lawn song ever ever jesus ever and it soars like it’s some meaningful statement instead of an old man (literally) yelling “Don’t make me use this thing” at the kids who are being too loud.

You Got Gold – nice, but still filled with “so hard to stand in the yard” easy rhymes and unironic schmaltzy sentiment and overlongyness.

Unwed Fathers – Boring morality statement. Bleh.

Space Monkey – unreleased song, which is nice, but nope. Just awful. Annoying melody with unnecessarily drawn out notes all over the place. Not funny, and the political sentiment (jokes about communist russia) are way outdated.

LJGB – Nice harmonica intro to a fairly nice rendition. What exactly are dime-store Jews, John? Anyway, the early superior lyricism is on display. My roommate commented “that’s much more clever than ‘space monkey'” not knowing the song’s pedigree.

Storm Windows – very quiet version of an overrated overserious song

JTMY – good song, but straight up version

HBTS – Another nice song but boring-ish rendition

Illegal Smile – by now I feel bad for the guy still singing album 1 track 1, and the drums don’t help much. He sounds way bored here.

Daddy’s Little Pumpkin – Nice song, but bar-banded up to no good effect

Lake Marie – Spirited! But eh at this point, nice to hear audience singing always, but long ending makes expendable

Extra songs – remarkably uninteresting – one’s even a piano ballad called “You Mean So Much To Me” plus I don’t want to live on tour, unless it’s an alternative to dying on tour, though that’d be one wrenching album.

4/10