Joan Baez

Dark Chords on a Big Guitar

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Six years is a long time to go between albums, especially for an artist who has recorded as sporadically as Joan Baez has over the last decade-and-a-half. And while her last outing, Gone From Danger, with songs by Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, and other contemporary singer/songwriters, was a milestone for Baez, it was merely an appetizer for the depth and weight that is Dark Chords on a Big Guitar. Here Baez uses her uncanny gift for song selection to choose material from a different generation of songwriters. She's moved away from the precious New England types, and looked instead to the moodier, murkier, sketchier material by scribes who've been comfortable walking the edges for awhile: Greg Brown, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary, Joe Henry, Josh Ritter, and even chart-topper Natalie Merchant. Produced by Mark Spector, Baez used her road band on the album; it includes the criminally under-noticed Duke McVinnie on guitars. Brown's "Sleeper," with its quietly transcendent narrative of love's revelation, opens the record only to dovetail into the brokenness, desperation, and prayerful entreaty for love that is Adams' "In My Time of Need." Cary's "Rosemary Moore" is a Patsy Cline-meets-the-Cowboy Junkies-styled country lounge tune. What these first three songs reveal is that even though her voice is no longer a huge, ringing instrument, Baez is a better interpretive vocalist than ever before. Because of her reduced range and reedier tone, she seeks new ways to get inside her material and does so in startling ways. While she may no longer have the vocal range to rouse an entire generation to action en masse, she more than succeeds at getting the listener to delve deeply into a song, to encounter it in the very fiber of her being, and look into the mirror to examine what truth it holds. Dark Chords on a Big Guitar is not simply a title; there are a lot of electric guitars here that provide atmospheric sounds and ambiguous, sensual textures on this record. While Baez is not a rock singer and doesn't try to be, this is a rock album. In the tension between the sonics and her voice on these tunes lies a breeding ground for the impossible to happen -- and it does, over and again: Baez uses that tension, the notion that desire and transcendence are two sides of the same coin, and rides it into the cracked heart of each of these fine tunes, shattering their surfaces and their artifice. She travels into the center, where each lyric holds its vulnerability, its culpability, and she revels there, bringing back meaning and truth from the murky, messy, wanton depths. Check out her reading of Henry's "King's Highway"; it finds ghostly traces of the Band in its ringing electric six strings and shuffling drums. Her version of Merchant's "Motherland" blows the original away. Her voice tears at the grain of the lyric, opening it enough for the listener to feel it in her marrow, its raw need, its profound nakedness, and the fiery spirit at its heart. Spector's production, which is reminiscent of Daniel Lanois', has more teeth; he seems to like jagged edges, and Baez thrives on them here. The album ends with her version of Earle's "Christmas in Washington." Somehow, this reading of the song means more than Earle's; it's as if he wrote it for her. As she invokes the ghosts of Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, and Malcolm X, she places the entire weight of those generations -- as instructed by them -- into her plea. It feels rightfully desperate, bewildered, and angry. It is a prayer echoed with purpose, pride, and the disbelief that such a plea would even be necessary in this day and age. Let's hope they hear it. Dark Chords on a Big Guitar proves that as an artist, Baez is still reaching, still restless, still resilient as leather, and possessed by the spirit of loving kindness; she is still wily and sexy, and still seeking a deeper, wider base to anchor her burning blue heart in the belly of her muse. On this record, Baez is poetically, musically, spiritually, and emotionally articulate; she voices with ease and conviction those scary, forbidden things everyone else feels in the dark night of their own souls.

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