[10 December 2009]
It’s business pretty much as usual on this, John Gorka’s eleventh studio album. So Dark You See may be a bit more folky and a bit less slick than 2006’s Writing in the Margins, but the overall aesthetic remains unchanged: sincere, serious, gentle-but-firm singer-songwriter fare delivered in a professional, if occasionally unexciting, manner. Gorka is an accomplished musician (guitar, banjo, harmonium, occasional percussion), has a fine baritone voice, and displays a finely-honed knack for crafting a telling lyric. These ingredients have seen him through nearly three decades of the folk business and will no doubt continue to do so.
So Dark You See begins not with one of Gorka’s lyrics, but with a setting of Robert Burns’s “A Fond Kiss”. It’s a strange choice for an opener, being a song of departure and severed relationships. Gorka accompanies the lyric with a delicately picked guitar and provides a meditative take on the song that is instantly calming and quite beautiful. “Whole Wide World”, a Gorka original, is an uptempo number that sounds more like the kind of thing one would expect at the outset of an album. It’s a little bland, the verses not quite providing enough narrative or melodic pull, each one ending with a refrain that is somewhat catchier but doesn’t quite turn the song the way it needs to go.
We’re back to melancholic pace with “Can’t Get over It”, a song of mourning for a lost friend. Accordion and subtle synthesizer add the requisite shadings to Gorka’s lovely melody, a fine example of words which look rather awkward on paper but come alive when sung. “Fret One” is an instrumental that could easily have been left out of the proceedings but does at least serve as bridge to “Ignorance and Privilege”, destined to be the Gorka song that fans will remember most from this album.
“Destined” is an appropriate word given the song’s subject matter of fate. Gorka delivers the lyric from the point of view of a privileged middle class white man whose “way was paved” due to his comfortable background. Like Loudon Wainwright’s “Westchester County”, the song resists smugness by offering an honesty that is all too often lacking in contemporary folk singers. The first-person story of origins that grounds so many singer-songwriter texts and sets the grounds on which authenticity is projected prefers to speak of poverty and hardship, or, if it can’t summon these key indexes, the lessons learned on the hard road of experience. Wainwright mocks this by setting his confessional in the comfort of the suburbs: “I was raised here in Westchester County / Tennis courts, golf courses galore”. Gorka plays it more seriously, finding intellectual poverty amidst material wealth: “I was born to ignorance and privilege”. The music, meanwhile builds up with the narrative, only to be resolved in a suitably inevitable fashion.
“I Think of You” is a Utah Phillips song given a decent reading and featuring Lucy Kaplansky (a longtime collaborator of Gorka’s) on harmony vocals. “Where No Monument Stands” is a musical adaptation of William Stafford’s poem “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border”. Here, Gorka sounds remarkably like Richard Shindell, a singer-songwriter with whom he shares a lot in common. As well as having a similarly understated delivery of their material, both artists produce songs that show a high level of thought and craftsmanship. They also move in related musical circles: Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson, both of whom turn up on Gorka’s album, have also recorded with Shindell.
Other covers on the album include a creditable take on the blues number “Trouble in Mind” and a welcome outing for Michael Smith’s “The Dutchman”, originally made famous by Steve Goodman in the 1970s and covered since by Suzy Boggus and Tom Russell among others. Gorka is faithful to the spirit of the 1970s singer-songwriter tradition, offering a straightforward vocal and guitar reading that does full justice to the intricate rhyme and meter of Smith’s lengthy stanzas.
So Dark You See closes with three Gorka originals. Whether deliberately or not, “Mr. Chambers” brings to mind the opening Burns piece, offering the same heptasyllabic, four-line verses and a similar yearning melody. “That Was the Year” is a lyrically entertaining, if musically underwhelming, tall tale flavored with accordion. “Diminishing Winds” is Gorka songcraft at its best, a stately constructed song of loss and acceptance. After Joana Newsom and Bruce Springsteen both managed to get Cassiopeia into their lyrics in recent years, it’s nice to hear a song that finds room for the Pleiades. But having a song that emphasizes the wind and also contains the line “the answer my friend” may be inviting the kind of folk music comparison that could never stand.
Gorka is not Dylan, nor has he yet made an album as magically suggestive as the best of Shindell’s work. Those who like their folk with a bit more bite or quirkiness will probably find So Dark You See rather lacking. But it’s a solid album that is bound to appeal to his fans and to followers of well-presented, mature, reflective folk.