[30 May 2007]
It’s been said that Andrew Lloyd Webber once complained to Alan Jay Lerner, “Why do they take an instant dislike to me?” Replied Lerner, “Because it saves time.”
Something about Garrison Keillor has always rubbed me up the wrong way. That voice! It had to be fake, right? Well, despite an aversion, I gradually noticed that he did in fact use it all the time. This though… in a way, this was another problem. Croaking rasp or rasping croak, there was no difference. As with Clement Freud, he appeared to use virtually the same tone regardless of the material. Criminal. Let’s not forget the sentimentality. Whether he was pretending that he was not a big softy, or vice versa, or both, that was neither mock affection nor affectionate mocking, but passive-aggression projected from the guilt of feeling like he can’t really express his feelings. Wasn’t it? So, not only was he pretending, but he was also not pretending! Unforgivable. Furthermore, Keillor seemed to reduce everything to a cozy state almost resembling an audio version of Norman Rockwell. In seeming blind to social injustice, he reminded me of the Cambridge Folk Festival where Michelle Shocked continued singing about jam while strawberry colored blood ran from the heads of those unfortunate enough to wander between her and the bikers willing to hurl full beer cans to maintain their unimpeded view. What a waste of Marston’s Pedigree.
Clearly, despite not being a deep psychoanalytic thinker, my repulsion has had more layers than a set of Russian Dolls carved from onions, and was propelled by logic akin to that of a child proclaiming dislike for a food they’ve never actually tasted. Over the years, people who like some of the books, film, and music that I do have told me that they find Keillor subtle, witty, even hilarious! “You must love him on Lutherans?” they’d cry, to be met with a blank look or a sneer, since on the basis of very little I found him about as funny as a hemorrhoid. The Poet’s Almanac seemed quite good, but thoughts would intrude: “Of course, that’s someone else’s material,” “It’s short and he’s rarely trying to be funny,” or “Well, the poems and bios are great despite being read by him.” When pressed, faint praise might surface. Something about a cake competition on BBC Radio 4 that caused chuckles while stuck in M6 traffic on route to the infamous Risley Remand Centre, aka Grisley Risley, one freezing winter morning long ago.
All that is to say that while Keillor’s style has earned him legions of devoted followers who will absolutely delight in both of these records, there are those who will avoid them like the plague, who would rather pull off their own big toes and shove them in their ears than give them a chance. In the sense of being loved and despised in equal measure, he reminds me of the late Ivor Cutler. Indeed, it was a consideration of my unfathomable regard for the, ahem, Scotch poet, that was to eventually allow me to stop being driven to distraction by the mere mention of the very idea of Garrison Keillor. Whether describing his childhood or his later life, Cutler was a nuanced fellow who portrayed a delicate state of existence in which he seemed to simultaneously love and despise his environment. Not in so many words of course. There’s no point trying to convince people of the worth of Ivor Cutler’s poignant and bizarre observations; they either get it or they don’t. (Does Mr. Keillor like Mr. Cutler?) Expecting others to give Jammy Smears or Life in a Scotch Sitting Room a fair listen seemed to demand the consistency of doing the same for the Minnesotan sage and if distraction loomed, it would be a place walked to, willingly, and with eyes and ears open.
Undoubtedly, reading Keillor’s comments about the current US administration (We’re Not in Lake Wobegon Anymore) was also an eye-opener. Clearly this man is not a smug, self-centered arse after all. On the contrary, he is a good writer who cares deeply about the quality of life, love, and the pursuit of liberty. I just hadn’t been paying attention to one of Minnesota’s most erudite commentators. Judge for yourself here.
When I Get Home was recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, July 2003, and Keillor’s voice sounds better on this disc than on Duets. The jaunty, self-penned “Whatever Floats Your Boat” showcases silliness, deliberately bad rhymes, and personal tolerance to perfectly set the scene for what follows: a smorgasbord of original songs, traditional tunes to which he has added words, covers, and some adaptations of poems cleverly infused into borrowed melody. Regular listeners will love this. The sprightly musicianship on “My Grandfather’s Clock” belies its subject matter. “My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose” is a bit syrupy for my tastes, but the act of sampling, if you will, five classic odes into a traditional Danish melody is skillfully done. I even enjoyed the spoken section. The faster “Homestead on the Farm” suits Keillor’s voice very well, as does the more stretched-out “Everybody Knows It (When You’re from St Paul)”, which amusingly spins Jimmie Cox’s “Nobody Knows You”.
The clarity of his rendition of “Home on the Range” is admirable. Keillor’s new words allow mixed feelings and meanings to surface in a song that was seemingly fatally damaged by ubiquity. I particularly enjoyed the reference to Crazy Horse. Less admirable is his and Becky Schlegel’s lush take on Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do”. To be fair, it’s probably less the fault of the flowery piano accompaniment by the faithful Richard Dworsky than a personal preference for the song to be whispered and trumpeted against a backdrop of junkie pathos, as per Chet Baker. Keillor’s own theatrical ode, “Old Backstage”, sounds better, a nimble nod to the behind-the-scenes crew and the audience out front. Thereafter, things take on a lumbering, portentous air so cloying and unaffecting that it was a physical effort to stick around for an “Only for You” that splendidly manages to merge the circularity of life, vomit, excrement, and scripture. Bravo!
A Prairie Home Companion: Duets opens with a song from 1994 that could be taken for granted since it comes from the Everly Brothers. This is understandable, since while they make what they do seem as deceptively simple as opening a door, many singers would find it easier to crack a safe armed only with a jar of marmalade. In a slight irony, the brothers are accompanied by Alvin Lee, whose playing I imagine has been described in athletic terms more often than it’s been called effortless or understated. The mandolin suits Lee’s quick style, as he can play as many notes as he likes, and it works!
“The Oak and the Laurel” is a spirited affair by Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum. Pleasingly, the song is copyrighted to Spruce and Maple Music, but sadly comes from an album that is not all about trees. Oh well. Overall, a few instrumentals, of which Chet Atkins and Jethro Burns’s take on “Autumn Leaves” may be the best, and a couple of show tunes not to my taste punctuate an album containing some interesting songs.
Iris Dement’s pairing here with Leo Kottke from 1997 would have to go to some lengths to match her duets with John Prine. It doesn’t, but Dement’s voice always oozes such utilitarian charm that she could make the light in a refrigerator seem sexy. The ground she walks upon should be preserved by the National Register of Pedestrian Routes of Perfectly Imperfect Voices. The tried and tested magnificence of Gillian Welch & David Rawlings is again in evidence here with a rendition of “Orphan Girl” from their 1996 release Revival. Their brilliance as a duo is such that surely their records are issued in her name only for the purpose of ease of marketing.
Elsewhere, there are missteps. From time to time I don’t mind going across the border into mawkish sentimentality when something is clever enough to require a disguised tear wipe by an adjustment of glasses or a sudden quick trip to the kitchen to check the oven is off. Unfortunately, Robin and Linda William’s “Visions of Mother and Dad” crosses that line without the payoff. Elsewhere, other than name recognition (which can go either way) whatever Meryl Streep brings to the proceedings is baffling. There is a striking contrast between her over-wrought melodrama and the superb clean-lined economy that Chet Atkins brings to the tracks on which his guitar features. If there isn’t a National Register somewhere with his name on it, I’ll have to invent one. Which reminds me, Emmylou Harris is also just about on this disc. Now, I absolutely love Emmylou, even more than Iris Dement, but I would suggest people check out her famously unsure and wordless contribution to Dylan’s Desire album over the frustratingly short traces of her voice on half of “Next Time I’m in Town”. It was probably hard to choose between her version with Mark Knopfler and Keillor’s with Chet Atkins, since they are both good. On the other hand, since they are both good, why merge them into a cut-and-pasted medley rather than include both in their entirety?
In conclusion, fans of Garrison Keillor’s affectionate and nuanced humor and the musical counterpoints featured on his long-running A Prairie Home Companion should delight in both of these records. Anti-Keillor diehards should give him another chance. Pass the slippers, I’m glad I did; glad to have heard one or two songs from both, glad that he has a love for radio, glad that my daughter and I will enjoy his next Annual Joke Show together. Though I will be leaving the reassessment of Andrew Lloyd Webber to someone of much stronger stomach…