Music

Donovan: Beat Cafe

Will Harris

Beat Cafe is unquestionably the strongest album that Donovan has released since his '60s heyday.


Donovan

Beat Cafe

Label: Appleseed Recordings
US Release Date: 2004-08-24
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

Poor Donovan: his reputation with the hipsters never really recovered from Don't Look Back.

If you're a music fan and you've never seen the film, you really should do so immediately. Directed by D. A. Pennebaker and shot during Bob Dylan's 1965 British concert tour, it's considered one of the definitive documents of the 1960s music scene. Through no fault of his own, Donovan had been tagged as England's answer to Dylan. Dylan had been informed that Donovan played better than him. Moreover, as hard as it may be to believe now, his records tended to sell better. When the two troubadours finally met up in a hotel room, the film captures Donovan politely performing "To Sing For You". Dylan seems to barely tolerate the performance, before taking the guitar and countering with a savage "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", all but spitting the words "it's all over now" at Donovan.

D'oh!

Actually, Donovan only really sounded like Dylan in the early days, when he was still singing material by Tim Hardin and Buffy Saint-Marie. Sure, his early original songs, "Catch the Wind" and "Colours", bear undeniable similarities to the best of Bob, but he grew out of those pretty damned quick. By 1966, he had found his own hippy-dippy niche; Rolling Stone declared him the "prince of flower power," and songs like "Sunshine Superman", "Season of the Witch", "Mellow Yellow", and "Hurdy Gurdy Man" were undeniably Donovan.

The hits stopped coming somewhere around the beginning of the '70s, though it didn't stop Donovan from continuing to record and release albums. After 1984's Lady of the Stars, however, he went quiet, focusing his efforts on his family, as well as painting and photography. It would be over a decade before his self-imposed hiatus came to an end. He released Sutras in 1996, featuring the production of longtime fan Rick Rubin, and musical assistance from Nigel Kennedy, Jonny Palonsky, Dave Navarro (of Jane's Addiction), Steve Ferrone (Average White Band), and famed session drummer Benmont Tench. (Personal note: By complete happenstance, I was on a rare visit to New York City when Donovan was promoting Sutras and was able to catch a short acoustic performance he gave to hype the disc. It holds particular poignancy for me because the gig took place at the Borders location at the World Trade Center. It was the first and only time I'd ever been to the twin towers.)

Now, eight years after Sutras, Donovan has finally returned with another new album, Beat Cafe, released by Appleseed Records, also home to Martyn Joseph and Kate McDonnell.

The sparse production of Sutras may have had Rick Rubin's good intentions behind it, but the end result suggested that he was trying to reproduce the effect he'd had on Johnny Cash's career, and revitalize another one of his musical heroes. It didn't work: the songs were fine and the album had its moments (in particular "Please Don't Bend" and "The Way"), but the melodies weren't consistently substantial and, as a result, the album came and went with little fanfare.

Beat Cafe, however, is unquestionably the strongest album that Donovan has released since his '60s heyday. Producer John Chelew, whose talents have been utilized by folks from Paul Weller to the Blind Boys of Alabama, comes into proceedings with the perfect feel for the material. The album's title suggests exactly what kind of feel you're in for. You can imagine this disc being the soundtrack for a gathering of beatniks, drinking coffee and snapping their fingers to Danny Thompson's double bass on the title cut, or to Jim Keltner's brushed beat on "Poorman's Sunshine".

Donovan's voice doesn't appear to have aged a day since the '60s, nor have his sensibilities changed. Both are evident on "Yin My Yang". He sings the lines "And there'll be music / Music in the air / Flowers in your hair / Life without a care"; not only are you positively certain that he means it, but he sounds so serene that you can't provide a decent reason to argue. There's a dark psychedelia to "The Question" and, on "Lord of the Universe", Donovan gets bluesy as he assures the listener that "It's best you don't mess with me / Cos I'll stomp on you". Given Sutras, it's ironic that the cover of the traditional "The Cuckoo" is delivered in a style that Johnny Cash would have been quite comfortable with. There's even a mostly-spoken version of "Do Not Go Gentle", by that other Dylan -- Dylan Thomas.

Beat Cafe ends with Donovan's equivalent of "Country Roads", a song called "Shambhala":

Take me home, back to Shambhala,
Where peaceful rivers flow,
Take me home, back to Shambhala,
Where seeds of love they flow.
Through this dream called life,
We all play a part
Till the day we awake
Unto the gentle heart.

Yes, Donovan may still be the same hippy-dippy poet that he was in the mid- to late-'60s, but there's something comforting about that. He's just as optimistic now as he was then, and, considered how tough times have gotten as of late, it might just be time for that long-deserved Donovan comeback.

God knows, Beat Cafe is strong enough to make it happen.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.