Joan Baez

Baptism

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Joan Baez's most unusual album, Baptism is of a piece with the "concept" albums of the late '60s, but more ambitious than most and different from all of them. Baez by this time was immersed in various causes, concerning the Vietnam War, the human condition, and the general state of the world, and it seemed as though every note of music that she sang was treated as important -- sometimes in a negative way by her opponents; additionally, popular music was changing rapidly, and even rock groups that had seldom worried in their music about too much beyond the singer's next sexual conquest were getting serious. Baptism was Baez getting more serious than she already was, right down to the settings of her music, and redirecting her talent from folk song to art song, complete with orchestral accompaniment. Naturally, her idea of a concept album would differ from that of, say, Frank Sinatra or the Beatles. Baptism was a body of poetry selected, edited, and read and sung by Baez, and set to music by Peter Schickele (better known for his comical musical "discoveries" associated with "P.D.Q. Bach," but also a serious musician and composer). In 1968, amid the strife spreading across the world, the album had a built-in urgency that made it work as a mixture of art and message -- today, it seems like a precious and overly self-absorbed period piece. Baez lacks the speaking voice to pull off an album's worth of readings, though her interpretations of Federico García Lorca's "Casida of the Lament" and "Gacela of the Dark Death" show her achieving a level of compelling expressiveness that is lacking elsewhere; and the recording of Countee Cullen's "Epitaph for a Poet" features some beautiful accompaniment by Schickele. Additionally, the sung portions, including "Old Welsh Song," "Who Murdered the Minutes," "The Magic Wood," and "Oh, Little Child" by Henry Treece, "Of the Dark Past" by James Joyce, "All in Green Went My Love Riding" by e.e. cummings, and the lullaby "All the Pretty Little Horses" are beautiful and sustain those portions of the album. Baptism is primarily for Baez completists, however, although it is also a singular reminder for '60s history buffs that not all of the antiwar movement's music, or the work coming out of the folk scene in 1968, was necessarily loud, harsh, or bitter.

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