Garrison Keillor: When I Get Home: Songs

D.M. Edwards

A nifty pair of musical releases by the wry wordsmith and bittersweet observer Garrison Keillor, or That Twit, as I have referred to him on many previous occasions.

Garrison Keillor

When I Get Home: Songs

Label: Highbridge
US Release Date: 2006-07-06
UK Release Date: Unavailable

Various Artists

A Prairie Home Companion: Duets

Label: Highbridge
US Release Date: 2006-10-05
UK Release Date: Unavailable

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...


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Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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