Just ‘cause you’re from North Jersey doesn’t mean you have to grow up to be a hit man—Mafia or musical. You can also wind up as a sensitive guy, a guy with an acoustic guitar rather than a Springsteen Telecaster who will probably never write a “hit”. You can grow up to be John Gorka.
Gorka is contemporary folk singer, a middle-aged man with a quality acoustic guitar and a penchant for sweet melody over finger-picked patterns, a singer with a casual baritone, a songwriter who’s probably read a few books in his day. Writing in the Margins is his new record, with a title that suggests he is a literate guy indeed. There is plenty of nice stuff to write about this record, and it’s all you would imagine: clean and tasteful production, gorgeously blended background vocals, gently catchy tunes, carefully crafted lyrics like, “Life is one big show what no one rehearses”, or “She wears bougainvillea blossoms / You pluck them from her hair and toss them in the tide”, electric guitars that reverb with a pulsating pleasure. If this record is your kind of thing, you own some alt-country material, some Nanci Griffith, maybe you dig Wilco, but you’re also pretty keen on Dar Williams. You are (or you date) a guy with a beard. Is that a cliché? Okay, it is. But that’s the dilemma with a record like Writing in the Margins. It’s a perfectly fine example of a certain TYPE of record. I’ve listened to the disc a dozen times, and I like it, but I’m struggling to tell you much about it, specifically. I’m a fan of this kind of thing—I own every single Lucy Kaplansky album, for example—but I found myself aching for John Gorka to surprise me here, to distinguish himself, to sing something shocking or funny or irritating or edgy ... to not cover a Townes Van Zandt song. But it was not to be.
Here is what I like the most: the title track, “Writing in the Margins” is an irresistible tune. A down-tempo minor melody that won’t leave your head, the song also contains a narrative that creeps up on you: a first person story in the form of a letter home from a soldier in Iraq. The soldier observes: “But we go when we are called / And hope there’s wisdom in the voice / We fall back on our training / When the moment leaves no choice.” The song is so plainly-sung that the urgency is artfully hidden. “There are not a lot of rich boys / Wearing DCUs and sand,” the voices notes. And so in it’s simple, easy style, the album makes a stand. I’m also pretty high on “When You Sing”, a soulful tune that Gorka explains was inspired by his encounter with Mavis Staples. Punched up by some horns, it’s one of the few tunes with a little rockin’ snap—the kind of thing that James Taylor has been doing well for a while now, playing the folkie fronting a little R&B band. You won’t get dirty listening to this sort of stuff, but you might dance a little.
More typical, alas, is “Road of Good Intentions”—another anti-war song, but one that is so musically whispery and gauzy that it about disappears as soon as it hits the air this side of your speakers. Nanci Griffith is there to etch background vocals, and the words intone the right sentiments; (“And the soldiers and their families / With life and limb they pay”), but the song breezes by too easily to catch you ear. How about “Arm’s Length”, with its chorus, “Kindness is not weakness / Meanness if not strength / Weakness not strength”? Or “The Lockkeeper”, a song with glorious Lucy Kaplansky background vocals, but also so slow that the CD itself threatens to stop turning when it’s playing.
The James Taylor comparison, perhaps, is worth raising again. For the last 30 years, JT has been the master of this kind of folk-pop balladry, managing to make it popular even when it is somewhat soft. Gorka, of course, does not position himself as a pop star, but rather as part of an art scene that seems like it ought to be more than just commerce. But with his distinctively colored voice and canny songwriting, Taylor simply sets the bar higher than most of today’s alt-folk singers can jump. John Gorka, in places here, shows the stuff it would take to make a bigger impact, maybe even to be—shudder to imagine it—popular. Who knows, few more horn licks and backbeats, a little more anger, a snappy hook here or there ... maybe it’s possible.
Go for it, John.