Driving Through Mythical America

Review from CREAM No.10, February 1972

Driving Through Mythical America
Philips 6308070

I HAVE a number of reservations about the current tidal wave of singer-songwriters. I'm not hostile in principle, you understand, merely fatigued with songs whose harmonies consist of 80 per cent tonic/dominant triads and whose words are often arbitrary gestures in the general direction of verse. Setting aside your Joni Mitchells and your Bob Dylans, most of the other ranks seem to me to lack wit and skill, although occasionally coming up with a pleasant little song.

From the first minute of the first track this album is clearly in another class altogether. To begin with, Pete Atkin's arrangements are clear, sparse and well voiced. There's a general influence of Gil Evans about them, I suppose, but how bad's that? The tunes don't have the instant charm of, say, Joni Mitchell's, but they're not a collection of identikit licks either. They've obviously been fitted to the words with attention to the dramatic rises and falls in story or atmosphere.

Clive James' lyrics are the thing which get me, though. I may be making a large claim (but I'd defend it) when I say that this is the first example I've found where the serious, poetic side of modern folk-pop has been tempered and sharpened by the wit of the Broadway lyricists. There are plenty of examples to choose from, but I would cite 'Practical Man', about a show-biz manager making a takeover bid for a young poet:

I fixed one chap a show on telly
Who limped like Byron and talked like Shelley ...

Apart from the wisecrack - worthy of Lorenz Hart - the rhyme of 'telly/Shelley' is in itself hilarious. Or take 'Thief In The Night', a song in praise of the guitar:

It reminds you of Memphis or maybe Majorca,
Big Bill Broonzy or Garcia Lorca,
A truck going north or a cab to the Festival Hall.

There are funny songs, love songs, dramatic monologues and the title track, which manages to cram just about every American myth into its five and a half minutes.

With their accustomed display of sparkling efficiency the record companies are issuing too many records of this type (if not this quality) and don't promote them properly. This one must be on the secret list, because I've only seen it mentioned in one other place. It's maddening because it's such a good piece of work - sensitive, literate and accomplished. If you can persuade your dealer that it exists, please get it.


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