February 27, 2018 Joan Baez – Whistle Down the Wind (Album Review)
Is it a figment of the imagination to think that all greatness eventually dies out, or does the next generation indeed carry the torch? Whatever the case, American Folk legend Joan Baez continues to contribute to the great American songbook with Whistle Down the Wind, her latest album, which arrives this Friday, March 2, 2018, via Bobolink/Razor & Tie Records.
Sadly, this album will mark the last year of touring for Baez, one of the greatest voices of her generation. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017, Baez represents more than a generation of protest: her poetry as a songwriter has long been the voice for many and, this time around, is no different. For Whistle Down the Wind, her earthy, sweet perfection was produced by three-time Grammy winner Joe Henry. While capturing the essence of a Folk singer that has no equal today, the ten song collection is a true vision from one of our country’s finest troubadours and reflects on a life of activism and music.
On making the record with Henry at the helm, Baez noted: “It was a hunch on both of the parts that we could make an album together. As it turned out, it was a no-brainer. We both work fast and were musically on the same wavelength. I work best with musicians who are as willing as I am to wing it and he assembled a group of players who did just that; meaning invents each song from scratch.”
Recorded over a ten-day period in Los Angeles, Henry and Baez worked with a variety of songwriters to add depth to the collection. Authentic vulnerability oozes from the opening song, “Whistle Down The Wind,” written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, which begins the thirty-nine-minute journey. Listeners have been on the road with the songwriter since her 1960 self-titled debut, Joan Baez, shared her voice with the world with no pretense. That minimalist essence oozes from each of Waits’ and Brennan’s lyrics, crafting a track that celebrates the time to hit the road and painting a beautiful picture with each word sung.
Transcending the times, “Be Of Good Heart,” which was penned by Josh Ritter, maintains the eternal essence of the woman Baez has been; at 75 years young she is pure, evermore. Always incomparable, the subtle guitar work with the addition of lush instrumentation is exquisite throughout the record. Fans of Joan Baez might already know that Baez is a member of the Library of Congress, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 47 Club in the Cambridge Milestones, Grammy Hall of Fame, and National Recording Registry. Additionally, she is a talented painter and her first solo painting exhibition, entitled “Mischief Makers,” depicted civil rights activists; a reflection of the musician’s involvement in the civil rights movement standing side by side along with her music.
To say that “Another World,” written by Anohni, reflects the sentiment of a woman who has watched the world spin out. As Baez prepares to move into her post-touring phase of life, the song may reflect many things, but for an optimist, such as Baez, pessimism is a waste of time; life moves on, experiences change. With an easy tempo and anticipatory feel, the track allows emotions to be painted by a combination of lyrics and vocal delivery from the masterful Folk genius.
Nearly halfway through the collection, the down-home feel of “Civil War,” written by Producer Henry, fills the air with metaphor, and brilliantly so. This is songwriting at its finest, folks: painting a picture with each carefully crafted word married to chords like an anthem of modern chaos. Downtempo and transported to another time, listeners close their eyes and find the courage to join the movement; this is, afterall, the voice that challenged the establishment. Hauntingly dark, it is time to think about who will pick up her mantle after she is done singing her truth.
Eerily brilliant, “The Things That We Are Made Of ,” written by Mary Chapin Carpenter, is campfire come to life; with elegant yet simple vocal delivery and stripped instrumentation, this track is perfect. With a message that translates across time, there is no need to complicate perfection and this is possibly the best cut of the record right here. Shifting gears to “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” written by Zoe Mulford, Baez does what she does best as a political activist; while musically, the piano-driven offering has a Gospel vibe and serves as an example of the artistry of this musical talent.
Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan return to author “Last Leaf,” which might be seen as melancholy at first listen but, in truth, is filled with wisdom and eternal experience; eventually everything moves on. Life is a cycle and Joan Baez has certainly grown older with grace: there is no argument that, at 75, choosing this to be her last year of touring is not a bad thing. She has more than earned her personal time!
“Silver Blade,” written by Josh Ritter, cuts with the trademark vocal-over delivery listeners have known over the decades on the multitude of the studio and live albums from the singer-songwriter; this could easily be imagined being performed in a dark club in Soho on an acoustic guitar. “The Great Correction,” written by Eliza Gilkyson, longs for another time, though for a Folk singer such as Baez, her life experience says one thing and that is times, they are changing. Is it wrong to say this album is classic Joan Baez despite just being released? Whistle Down the Wind finishes with “I Wish the Wars Were All Over,” a track with a Medieval feel. The message here is clear: wars have been an eternal, never-ending horror, a taker of innocence, life, and peace.
There is brilliance throughout Whistle Down the Wind in its musicality and lyricism, and there is always a beautiful balance between the two. A child of peace, love, and understanding, Joan Baez has maintained an authentic connection to her life and fans, and her songs are a stark example of truth according to an artist who has fought her entire life to be heard. Now leaving a legacy of music with a final statement that includes collaborations with some of the greatest songwriters of all time, there are no greater heights for this amazingly talented woman to reach. Urging all to be good of heart with the voice of a songbird, CrypticRock hear the call and give Whistle Down the Wind 5 out of 5 stars.