A Portrait of Greek pop artist George Dalaras frustrates more than it enlightens once you get past liner notes extolling his creative place in Greek pop music since the late '60s. Here's what's not here: no recording or release dates for the songs; no musician credits; no songwriting credits (you gotta suspect Dalaras wrote the lion's share, if not all, of them); no indication of what Dalaras himself plays (guitar and/or bouzouki seem most likely); and no translations of lyrics. And here's what Dalaras isn't musically: he's no Bruce Springsteen (like you might be led to believe) rockin' the Greek house with arena anthems (there's not a triumphant ringing chord or electric guitar to be found here);
and he's no Annanaboula punkin' up traditional rembetiko (which his father played) or an instrumental hero à la Stevie Ray Vaughan tearing that Greek blues form up. He is sort of a roots revivalist but in a mainstream pop vein since virtually all the songs are in the three-to-five minute range. He's '60s-generation in his non-Greek rock influences, so maybe the best analogy would be the Fairport Convention/Richard Thompson/Steeleye Span generation if they had been mainstream pop idols in the U.K. for 30 years. Beyond the Greek roots, you can make out a broader range of Mediterranean influences that at times vaguely recall Rachid Taha -- except Taha would be a rock/punk generation reaction against Dalaras types. The music is built around Dalaras' usually mournful singing (particularly good on ballads like "Konstandanis the Only Son" and "You Were a God") and lots of acoustic string instruments playing intertwined parts very well ("The Sky Darkens" sports a pretty typical arrangement). "Stranger," "Take, Gypsy, Your Hammer and Bellows," and "Deaths" show a facility for melodies and hooks, and "Don't Read My Life," "You Finished Me," and "O Zorikos" are more rembetiko-classic arrangements. The final nine tracks are live but the most up-tempo, "Manouella" with Paco de Lucía on guitar, is one of those blink-and-you-miss-it deals. "August/Your Many Faces" has soft, intimate singing but only starts picking up with the bouzouki licks. Even the live tracks only hint at taking off but never do -- the closing "To Thomas' Place" is about the only one that makes you want to go along for the ride. So ultimately what can you say about Dalaras? He's a total pro and very good craftsman, but ultimately this is A Portrait of someone who remains a musical mystery man. Apart from the general outlines of his sound, any non-Greek speaker is left on the outside looking in, without any real entry point to the music.