John Hartford

John Hartford

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RCA probably thought they were just signing the guy who wrote "Gentle on My Mind" when they signed John Hartford back in 1966, but his own albums just kept getting stranger and stranger during the late '60s, culminating in this bizarre piece of orchestrated country-tinged art rock from 1969, which sounds kind of like Nashville's take on Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle. Opening with the descriptively titled "Dusty Miller Hornpipe and Fugue in A Major for Strings, Brass and 5-String Banjo," the album eases into a cockeyed blend of middle-of-the-road orchestrations and Hartford's quirky sense of humor. There are a few almost normal-sounding tunes, but even the most commercial song has the unwieldy title "I've Heard That Tearstained Monologue You Do There By the Door Before You Go" and rueful lyrics to match. After that interlude, the album touches on creepy character studies like "The Collector" and "Mr. Jackson's Got Nothing to Do," interlarded with short instrumental pieces that are as odd and artsy as anything Parks was doing at the same time, including an ironic deconstruction of "Gentle on My Mind" under the title "A Short Sentimental Interlude." The combination of Hartford's remarkable voice, his eccentric but accessible sense of whimsy, and Al Capps' utterly straight strings and brass arrangements is quite fascinating. Fans of the comparatively twee and normal Neon Philharmonic should check out this similar (but much better) album, as should anyone who adores Glen Campbell's Jim Webb collaborations.