John Hartford

Looks at Life

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John Hartford's first album introduced a unique talent whose songs couldn't be comfortably fit into either the country, folk, or pop slots, though they had much to do with all those forms. (Indeed, the front cover prominently printed "Folk Country" below the RCA label, as several RCA releases were doing around that time, for the likes of Hartford and George Hamilton IV.) Too, Hartford was one of the first country-aligned singer/songwriters to take advantage of the opportunity to explore the territory of abstract, nonlinear lyricism that Bob Dylan and others had only recently opened. In a way Hartford was stranger, or at least more inclined toward quirky semiabsurd humor, than most such singer/songwriters. His laconic wit was there to hear from the opening cut, "I Reckon," a drolly self-aware homily on the commercial packaging of his personal musings. Though occasional songs skirted commercial country-pop ("Like Unto a Mockingbird," "Minus the Woman") and novelty tunes ("I Shoulda Wore My Birthday Suit" and the kazoo-laden "Jack's in the Sack"), usually they fell somewhere between the normal and the silly. It wasn't quite as good as the best of his subsequent RCA albums of the late '60s and early '70s, though, as the melodies weren't quite as strong and the production not as elaborate. "The Tall Tall Grass" does give a hint of what was to come, though, with its left-field insertions of booming low piano notes and "doodly-doo" backup vocals. An almost subconscious Dylan influence seeps in occasionally, most audibly on "When the Sky Began to Fall" (with its faint resemblance to "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"), though that would be quickly ironed out of Hartford's work. [In 2002, Looks at Life and Hartford's second album, Earthwords & Music, were combined onto one CD by BMG/Camden in the UK.]