Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Harry Chapin - Original Album Series (1972-76 us, brilliant folk rock, 2009 five disc box)

Harry Chapin's debut album is a smoothly put-together, if slightly musically unbalanced piece of singer/songwriter rock, unbalanced because good as everything here is, the hit, "Taxi," and the other songs on the original LP's second side somewhat overwhelm the rest of Heads & Tales. "Taxi" is so elaborately produced and arranged that it's like a feature film that clocks in at six minutes and 44 seconds; "Any Old Kind of Day" is a beautiful and unsettling confessional about an artist's unease and depression, like an East Coast equivalent to Brian Wilson's brand of personal songwriting, with a touch of James Taylor's influence and unique phrasings and sensibilities by Chapin; the epic "Dogtown" (which nearly overstays its welcome at seven and a half minutes) is a startling piece of song painting with a topical edge, which anticipated some aspects of Chapin's subsequent public commitment to progressive political causes; and "Same Sad Singer" is a haunting, romantic confessional that explores some of the same emotional territory in first-person terms that "Taxi" dealt with through characters. 

Side one's songs don't quite match up, though "Empty" has nice hooks and a good beat. The record holds up well in part because of its strange combination of lean production and rich sounds -- producer Jac Holzman preserved all of the elements from Chapin's stage act that he liked, and apart from some keyboard embellishment from Steve Chapin and percussion by Russ Kunkel, it's all the basic quartet: Ron Palmer on electric guitar, Tim Scott on cello, John Wallace on bass, and Harry Chapin on acoustic guitar. They sound like a lot more players, and Palmer and Wallace add more than two backup singers should be capable of bringing to the table. Chapin's singing isn't actually that good, his range and expressiveness at times very narrow, but his energy and commitment to the songs pour off the album and make this album a compelling listen 30 years later.

Sniper & Other Love Songs never sold remotely as well as its predecessor, Heads & Tales, mostly because it never had a hit single like "Taxi" to help lift it high on the charts, but it is actually a bolder and better album and a much more balanced record; the lack of an elaborately produced number like "Taxi" may have hurt sales, but it meant that no one song dominated the proceedings. Chapin sings better here than on his first album, with improved range and a lot more confidence, which extends to his songwriting as well -- "Sunday Morning Sunshine" is a fine folk-based number that opens the album in achingly beautiful, genial fashion, but it's on the second song, "Sniper," that Chapin shows his real range. 

A ten-minute conceptual work, the latter has all the complexity and drama of a screenplay and a movie soundtrack woven into one, and is brilliantly performed/acted by Chapin; listening to it, one gets the impression of a real-life, soft rock version of Noel Airman, the composer character from the novel Marjorie Morningstar, who was forever trying out and reworking material from the Broadway show that he was planning for years; even overlooking the fact that Chapin did, of course, get to Broadway, there's a sense of someone looking for a bigger canvas that records or singing songs on a concert stage can provide. 

The rest ranges from low-key, elegantly played, but unpretentious singer/songwriter material, built on beautiful melodies ("And the Baby Never Cries") to fairly hard-rocking electric numbers ("Burning Herself"). Some of it, like "Barefoot Lady," sounds a decade out of place in the 1970s, while other numbers, such as "Better Place to Be," are the kind of extended soft-rocking, poetic numbers that collegiate audiences (at least, humanities majors) used to devour in the early '70s. "Circle" is probably the most popular number ever to come off of the album, but it's merely the most obvious personal statement here, rather than representative of this engaging and still very rewarding album, which finally showed up on CD in 2002, in time for its 30th anniversary, from the Wounded Bird label. 

Verities & Balderdash is a very strange and wonderful album. "Cat's in the Cradle" was the driving force behind the album's sales, but there's a lot more to appeal to listeners, along with enough personal, topical material to make it seem a bit didactic at the time, but Chapin was cultivating a politically committed audience. Verities & Balderdash walked several fine lines, between topical songwriting and an almost (but not quite) pretentious sense of its own importance, humor and seriousness, and balladry and punditry, all intermingled with catchy, highly commercial ballads such as "I Wanna Learn a Love Song" (which is about as pretty a song as he ever wrote). Chapin is in good voice and thrives in the more commercial sound of this album, which includes lots of electric guitars and overdubbed orchestra and choruses. He still loves to tell stories -- most are like little screenplays, with "Shooting Star" offering details and textures and a sense of drama akin to a finished film (in the manner of "Taxi"). 

The "haunt count" on this album is extremely high, boosted by gorgeous ballads like "She Sings Songs Without Words." "What Made America Famous" may be the one song that comes off as dated, a parable -- perhaps reflecting the near-meltdown of politics surrounding the Nixon resignation of 1974 -- about long-haired teens and crew-cutted firemen who discover a mutual dependence and respect for each other and reconciliation; it seems like ancient history and probably will be incomprehensible to anyone born after 1968. Chapin also lapses into excessive dramatics in the finale, which shamelessly borrows a couple of lines from one song out of the musical 1776. 

The album also offers a pair of humorous numbers on "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" and "Six String Orchestra," not the most significant songs in Chapin's repertory, but both adding balance to the mood. Producer Paul Leka (the commercial genius behind Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye") retained some elements of the relatively lean sound that characterized Chapin's debut album, embellishing it only enough to give the album some potentially wider commercial appeal. Even the cover art seems to reflect the two delightfully contradictory thrusts of this album: an image of Chapin posed like Uncle Sam on the military recruiting poster with a wry smile on his face. 
by Bruce Eder

The pensive tales of personal relationships on Short Stories belong to a bygone era, when the summer of love was yielding to the autumn of adulthood and the mundane realities that attended it. Like Jim Croce and James Taylor, Harry Chapin observes the melancholy side of life in self-contained character studies: the midlife assessment of a failed career and marriage on the poignant "WOLD," a dry cleaner whose pretense to a singing career is exposed on "Mr. Tanner," the meager dreams of a poor farmer and his mail-order bride on "Mail Order Annie." Yet the album's overall tone is sober rather than somber. Perhaps "Song for Myself" expresses it best when Chapin offers up the challenge: "Are we all gonna sit here with a stoned out smile and simply watch the world go 'way?" For the songwriter, it's a rhetorical question.

If the subjects are flawed, unhappy, unable to appreciate or hold on to love, it's the reality left in the wake of the '60s overweening idealism. The loss of free love is lamented on "They Call Her Easy," replaced by the cynicism of experience in "Changes." Musically, the album has much in common with the work of Cat Stevens, leaning on Paul Leka's orchestral arrangements to embellish otherwise dry songs. Chapin lacks Stevens' affection for inventive melodies and off-kilter rhythms, but compared to a toned-down record like Catch Bull at Four, the two are strikingly similar. The fact remains that casual fans will be better served with a greatest-hits compilation that includes "WOLD" than wading through all of Short Stories. Those with a predilection for Chapin's bittersweet muse will be better served by the whole album. 

On the Road to Kingdom Come sounded more like a rock album than anything Harry Chapin had done to date. In the hands of sympathetic producer/arranger Stephen Chapin, Harry's songs are infused with clever and often humorous bits of musical commentary -- horns, electric guitars, keyboards, backing vocals, and various sound effects pop up at opportune times throughout -- that makes much of the material instantly ingratiating. While the record failed to capture commercial interest (singer/songwriters were out, disco was in), song for song this is one of his strongest efforts. As a musical storyteller, Chapin has few peers; both the potent tale of a duplicitous potentate on "The Mayor of Candor Lied" and the heartwarming "Corey's Coming" are masterfully conceived. Harry's humorous side, which somehow got stifled in the studio, here comes out of the closet for the title track and "Laugh Man," though both have their barbs.

The album also included two of his prettiest songs, "Caroline" (co-written with wife Sandy Chapin) and "If My Mary Were Here." A track dedicated to the recently fallen Phil Ochs, "The Parade's Still Passing By," is also featured. Compared to some of his earlier work, which was often dry and dour, these songs are vigorous and saturated in sound. Some might charge that the record's resemblance to Elton John's contemporary work renders it lightweight, but Chapin's wit was sharpening with age and his romantic visions remained keen. For the faithful, getting On the Road to Kingdom Come is a good idea.
by Dave Connolly
Disc 1 Heads And Tales 1972
1. Could You Put Your Light On, Please - 4:30
2. Greyhound - 5:45
3. Everybody's Lonely - 4:07
4. Sometime, Somewhere Wife - 4:58
5. Empty - 2:57
6. Taxi - 6:44
7. Any Old Kind Of Day - 4:56
8. Dogtown - 7:30
9. Same Sad Singer - 4:12
Music and Lyrics by Harry Chapin
Disc 2 Sniper And Other Love Stories 1972
1. Sunday Morning Sunshine - 3:51
2. Sniper - 10:02
3. And The Baby Never Cries - 5:09
4. Burning Herself - 3:29
5. Barefoot Boy - 3:29
6. Better Place To Be - 8:36
7. Circle - 3:25
8. Woman Child - 5:25
9. Winter Song - 2:31
Words and Music by Harry Chapin
Disc 3 Short Stories 1973
1. Short Stories - 4:35
2. W*O*L*D - 5:15
3. Song For Myself - 5:00
4. Song Man - 3:13
5. Changes - 4:32
6. They Call Her Easy - 4:03
7. Mr. Tanner - 5:08
8. Mail Order Annie - 4:52
9. There's A Lot Of Lonely People Tonight - 3:39
10.Old College Avenue - 4:25
All compositions by Harry Chapin
Disc 4 Verities And Balderdash 1974
1. Cat's In The Cradle (Sandy Chapin) - 3:44
2. I Wanna Learn A Love Song - 4:19
3. Shooting Star - 4:02
4. 30,000 Pounds Of Bananas - 5:45
5. She Sings Songs Without Words - 3:31
6. What Made America Famous? - 6:53
7. Vacancy - 4:00
8. Halfway To Heaven - 6:10
9. Six String Orchestra - 5:25
All songs by Harry Chapin except where stated
Disc 5 On The Road To Kingdom Come 1976
1. On The Road To Kingdom Come - 5:26
2. The Parade's Still Passing By - 3:26
3. The Mayor Of Candor Lied - 8:27
4. Laugh Man - 3:36
5. Corey's Coming - 5:41
6. If My Mary Were Here - 3:32
7. Fall In Love With Him - 3:54
8. Caroline (Sandy Chapin) - 3:41
9. Roll Down The River - 4:28
All tracks by Harry Chapin except where indicated

Disc 1 Heads And Tales 1972
*Harry Chapin - Guitar, Vocals
*Steve Chapin - Keyboards
*Russ Kunkel - Drums, Percussion
*Ronald Palmer - Guitar, Vocals
*Tim Scott - Cello
*John Wallace - Bass, Vocals

Disc 2 Sniper And Other Love Stories 1972
*Harry Chapin - Guitar, Vocals
*John Wallace - Bass, Vocals
*Tim Scott - Cello
*Ron Palmer - Lead Guitar, Vocals
*Steve Chapin - Keyboards
*Russ Kunkel - Drums And Percussion

Disc 3 Short Stories 1973
*Harry Chapin - Guitar, Vocals
*Dave Armstrong - Harmonica
*Tomi Lee Bradley - Vocals
*Bobby Carlin - Drums
*Jeanne French - Vocals
*Paul Leka - Keyboards
*Michael Masters - Cello
*Ronald Palmer - Guitar, Vocals
*Buddy Salzman - Drums
*John Wallace - Bass Guitar, Vocals
*Tim Scott - Cello

Disc 4 Verities And Balderdash 1974
*Harry Chapin - Guitar, Lead Vocals
*Stephen Chapin - Keyboards, Vocals
*Jim Chapin - Drums
*Tom Chapin - Banjo
*John Tropea - Acoustic Guitar, Sitar
*Don Payne - Bass
*Allan Schwartzberg - Drums
*Don Grolnick - Piano, Electric Piano, Harpsichord
*Ron Bacchiocchi - Synthesizer
*George Simms - Background Vocals
*Frank Simms - Background Vocals
*Dave Kondziela - Background Vocals
*Zizi Roberts - Vocals
*Paul Leka - Piano
*Irving Spice - Concertmaster

Disc 5 On The Road To Kingdom Come 1976
*Harry Chapin - Guitar, Vocals
*Buzz Brauner - Recorder
*Stephen Chapin - Keyboards, Vocals
*Carolyn Dennis - Vocals
*Ron Evanuik - Cello
*Donna Fein - Vocals
*Howie Fields - Drums, Percussion
*Bobbye Hall - Percussion
*Muffy Hendrix - Vocals
*Sharon Hendrix - Vocals
*Doug Walker - Guitar, Vocals
*John Wallace - Bass, Vocals