In Person and on Stage / Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows
Oh Boy Records
I first heard John Prine in my golden college days, when someone at the campus radio station played a short, short folk song that boiled down to a one-liner: “He was just a shell of a man, if you held him to your ear, you could hear the ocean.” Since then, I’ve watched Prine as he popped up on TV and the radio with clever and well-constructed folk/country music. I received an odd two-disc set for this release — there’s a regular CD with 14 crisp, live cuts, and a handmade disc with 12 very nice covers of Prine’s best material. On Amazon, it looks like you can only get the first disc, but if you can lay your hands on the bonus material, it’s worth the trouble.
Let’s start with the easily available disc. Prine opens with the gentle anti-war hippie song “Spanish Pipe Dream” with its advice to “throw away your newspaper, blow up your TV, move to the country and eat a lot of peaches.” Without intending, I’ve followed most of that advice except for moving to the country — I’m still a city boy who gets his country clean air via the internet. Prine plays with some fantastic guest artists including Iris Dement on “In Spite of Ourselves” and Emmylou Harris for “Angel from Montgomery.” In all these songs, the audio is superb, the audience interference present but not intrusive, and if you can put up with the occasional pre-song tall tale, his rambling introductions are bearable. One song really grabbed me: “The Bottomless Lake” tells about a family trip that goes bad when their brakes fail, and they all crash into a bottomless lake and end up eating sandwiches and watching the fishies swim by.
The bonus disc is covered by bands that are very close to Prine’s style, and the first track “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)” by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver confused me. I thought it was Prine with a backing band. Right after that comes the engaging “Wedding Day in Funeral Town” by Conor Oberst. It’s a typically sardonic Prine tune with a jaundiced view of love and marriage. There’s a good bit of overlap between these two discs; “Spanish Pipe Dream,” “Angel from Montgomery,” and “The Late John Garfield Blues” appear on both. The takes are different enough to justify the duplication, but what makes this bonus disc special is the last cut — “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian” by Those Darlins. Hawaiian always sounds a bit salacious, but the high-school-grade jokes about “Kamanwanalaime” work much better with a decent sound track. Prine and his friends are still some of the best folk singers around — their music is entertaining without preaching and down home without sounding hokey or unprofessional. No kumbaya here, just the heart of a working man’s would, primped and painted to sound so much better than reality.