I jumped at the chance to review this collection…mostly from the perspective of…”What could possibly be categorized as “Folk Rock” over 40+ years? I mean…just how would you define the term? Is it as simple as taking a traditional folk song and throwing electric instruments and a rock and roll backbeat onto it? When it first emerged in the mid sixties on both sides of the Atlantic it was pretty much that simple. All that differed was the source material…in the states, Dylan was the driving force with the Byrds applying enhanced sonics (Rickenbacker 12-string), and some Beatles/type rhythms. Back in the kingdom, Fairport Convention took a similar concept and applied it to traditional British folk songs. Their success spawned a tidal wave of imitators. For the definitive read on this genre, check out Richie Unterberger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn…the Sixties Folk Rock Revolution”.
This boxed set presents a very strong and comprehensive overview of (admittedly) a very broad spectrum of songs that might fit a “folk rock” genre, but it also includes the “singer-songwriter”, “country rock”, “roots rock”, and “Americana” subsets. The thing I found most intriguing was how effectively the collection crossed over---we have folk tracks performed by rock bands…rock songs recorded by folk acts…the concept of Thin Lizzy doing a version of the Clancy Brothers’ “Whiskey in the Jar” just boggles the mind. Even more disconcerting is the notion that it works!
The 4 CDs are broken down into “decades” that start in the Sixties and extend to the “Nineties and Beyond”. The collection works best if viewed in terms of the time frames covered.
The first CD, “The Sixties” is pretty much what you would expect, but brought back a ton of memories and raised a ton of questions as to why certain Groups were not included. The liner notes suggest that Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” kicked things off…NOT TRUE. The Byrds’ Beatlesque take on Mr. Tambourine Man started it all. As noted above, imitators proliferated. Some OK…some great…some better left to oblivion. This disc covers the essentials (Byrds, Turtles, Mamas and Papas, Donovan, Youngbloods, Lovin’ Spoonful). This disc shines with the inclusion of We Five’s version of Ian Tyson’s “You were on My Mind” (the 12-string at the end still causes goosebumps) and Jefferson Airplane’s “Today” (Marty Balin had the greatest voice in the Sixties). This decade featured widespread experimentation and combination of genres (Indian Ragas, jazz and country). It would have been much stronger if some Moby Grape and/or Kaleidescope (David Lindley’s band) had been included.
The second disc covers the Seventies or the “Singer Songwriter” period. British groups such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span are featured…sadly no Strawbs are included. Of all the CDs, this one has perhaps the broadest spectrum where folk and rock are almost indistinguishable. But there are some reals gems here…Arlo Guthrie’s “Comin’ Into Los Angeles” is a superb picture of drug smuggling from a hippie perspective that feature’s Clarence White’s blistering string-bender solo. Of couse, you have the L.A. scene well represented…but no Eagles “Take it Easy”?…Come on! Some cuts here are suspect…James Taylor’s “Anywhere Like Heaven” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman “ stretch any workable definition of folk rock. Oh yeah…let’s not forget that guilty pleasure “American Pie” by Don McLean (presented in all of its 8+ minutes glory.
Disc Three (the Eighties) is where things get interesting. This is the point where the genre “folk rock” becomes a tribute to various bands, most notably the Byrds with a heavy emphasis on 12 String Rics…with a subtle twist…these songs integrate social issues (sadly missing during the seventies when Disco reigned supreme). This disc is rich with a mix of old guard (Richard Thompson) and the emerging superstars (REM), LA’s Paisley Underground (The Rain/Dream Syndicate, Bangles, Peter Case). The sound remains intact, but we finally are able to get a sense of just how far reaching the folk rock genre extends and how many bands have managed to integrate different elements. Many of these groups will spill over to the 4th disc in different incarnations. Look for Maria McKee of Lone Justice, Natalie Merchant, Suzanne Vega. Interesting, but this disc is the first with a clear shift toward female songwriters and performers.
Disc 4…the 90’s and Beyond. This is the most intriguing disc in the collection…in terms of style, the songs are more deeply rooted in “folk” and evidence a return to the acoustic format that served as the basis for the initial forays into folk rock…kind of makes you wander what’s next? Roger McGuinn’s kids cut an album? This disc takes things full circle and is dominated by Wilco offshoots (Son Volt…Uncle Tupelo). There’s some liberal sprinklings of 12 string guitars, but as a rule the songs are far more introspective than anything we saw in the sixties.
I just love this collection…sure I’m biased, but Time Life has done an excellent job of including cuts that define and extend the concept of folk and rock music. A hard and fast definition remains elusive, it’s kind of like early definitions of porn…I know it when I see it. Can’t wait for the next millennium collection.