John Hartford

Housing Project

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Any late-'60s, major-label country-pop artist calling his album Housing Project was pretty much announcing that commercial success wasn't his utmost priority even before the record had been played. That sensibility was evident in the music as well, which, like much of Hartford's previous RCA work, was off-kilter country-pop with liberal smidgens of bluegrass and intellectual folk-rock lyricism. It was little less ornately produced than its immediate predecessor, The Love Album, but the arrangements remained chock-full of surprising interjections of backward guitar, squeaky trumpet, gently soaring violins, lightly quasi-psychedelic dissonance (on "Crystallia Daydream" and "Big Blue Balloon"), tinkling keyboards, and the like. The songwriting remained outstanding -- a necessity, actually, for this material to work given the limited vocal range of Hartford's talky singing style. He gets the most out of a little, though, with his odd narrative tales, their laconic wit and satirical dalliances with clich├ęs making it difficult to tell if he's being serious or not -- which makes the results all the more nonchalantly charming. The spoken monologue on the title track, as well as the general cunning low-key tone of Hartford's humor, also makes you wonder if Garrison Keillor was a big Hartford fan, though Hartford's music is certainly superior to Keillor's. Leaving aside the engagingly quizzical nature of the songwriting, there are some tracks that are just fine wistful tunes whether or not you dig into the irony, particularly the aforementioned "Crystallia Daydream" and "Big Blue Balloon." "The Girl With the Long Brown Hair" is Hartford at his most romantic (albeit with tongue in cheek intact), and "The Category Stomp" is Hartford at his most biting, putting a hoe-down dance tune to a lyrical swipe at the late-'60s crazes for pouring all manner of styles into a psychedelic kitchen sink. "The Sailboat Song," by contrast, pointed to the more homespun lyrical and musical path he'd follow after leaving RCA. (In 2002, Housing Project and Hartford's previous album, The Love Album, were combined onto one CD by BMG/Camden in the U.K.)