[3 February 2010]
Ah, famous dynasties. Where to begin? Our culture (especially the popular aspect of it) is saturated by the idea of a family name and what that name and pedigree instills, contains and even represents. Some dynasties in Hollywood are good (the Coppolas, for instance), some are tarnished with some whack jobs (the Baldwins, we’ll say) and some are so irrelevant and terrible, it hurts to even think about them (Joe Simpson, we’re looking at you!). But few are as eccentric and eclectic as the Voights.
With a roster that includes a fraternal trio of a scientist, an actor and a country songwriter and a second generation that includes uber-star Angelina Jolie, the Voights are one of the most interesting of the Hollywood dynasties. The country songwriter, James Wesley Voight, records under the pseudonym Chip Taylor and, with his latest album, has recorded something more revealing, personal and intimate than anything VH1 or E! could ever assemble.
Accumulated with a collage of family photos, black-and-white still photos and inserts providing backing information, Yonkers NY is equally heartbreaking, enlightening and sympathetic. The album is work of an individual reflecting back on life with a sigh, a smile, a tear and a raised fist. The closest thing the album resembles in recent pop culture memory is the video Johnny Cash released for “Hurt” a few years back. If the album never reaches the zenith of the mentioned video, it has more to do with Cash’s iconic placement in history than a lack on Voight’s songwriting.
And Voight’s songwriting has never been sharper. He writes in the same autobiographical and vernacular-based spirit as Dolly Parton, with a lore for the rowdy and dangerous that recalls vintage Hank Williams. Throughout the album, several key details of cornerstone moments in the singer’s family’s life are revealed with devastating attention to detail. Voight sings them with a leathered and worn plainspoken vocal style that perfectly complements the narratives he’s composed.
On the terrific opening number, “Barry Go On”, the singer reflects the fictitious stories his father used to tell him and his brothers. As oppose to resorting to simplifying the story, or worse, turning it into a laundry list of pointless one-liners, Voight builds the naivety of he and his brothers and turns it into ambition and admiration for their father. That same sense of ambition and admiration runs throughout the rest of the album and lends a nice sense of coherence to the album.
There’s a real juxtaposition of the singer’s feelings towards his family and his personal dreams, but Voight manages to highlight how the two are both different and similar. “Bastard Brothers” embodies this mindset better than anything else of the album. The story is hilarious, heartfelt and heartbreaking with specifics on seemingly trivial but essential moments in the singer’s life, including receiving a ukulele for Christmas. The narrative progresses from the protagonist’s brothers blockading his chance at fame to the singer signing a contract on a black record label. The fascination with black music and culture appears again on “Saw Mill River Road”, which opens with the lines, “Way down in Macon they was singin’ the blues / back home in Yonkers we had nothing to choose / no country / no race records / just some old white stuff / For some of us boys / it just wasn’t good enough”. The rockabilly guitar burn of “Hey Johnny” features the couplet, “Crazy man crazy / ain’t no white boy music / nothing gonna stop it now”.
The songs are perfectly complemented by the retro-leaning Country production that comes courtesy of the singer himself. The horse-gambling tale of “Without Horses” is boosted by a subtle dobro wash. “No Dice” turns into a slow-burning bar number. “Yonker Girls” is surprising sonically hedonistic for Voight’s vocals while the closing title track raises and falls where the stanzas demand it. Voight smartly chose a production style that never draws too much attention to itself, leaving the focus on the songs themselves. The same could be said about his singing. Rarely does he try to sing outside his limited range, a move that bears wonderful results.
Call it his “Coat of Many Colors” if you want, but whatever you call it, there’s nothing ambiguous about it. Voight lays all the cards down on the table, throws in his chips and doesn’t ask you to like him. He doesn’t even ask you to listen, but writes so profoundly you can’t help but be drawn to it, even if at times listening feels like intrusion. Honest, poignant, humorous and authentic, Yonkers NY leaves little questions left. It almost makes you wonder what would happen if Angelia ever decided to plug in and confess.