Joan Bez is a name I’ve heard and I know she’s a musician. But I never knew what kind of musician she was, or even when she was at her peak. She could be a hippie like Janis Joplin. She could be a painful folkie like Joanie Mitchell. She could be a rocker like Joan Jett. Well, it turns she has been around since the 60s and is still going strong today. And it turns out she makes, or at least in the 60s made, what I would call American mountain folk music. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but I’m sticking by it. Because I just listened to Joan Baez with the creatively titled album, Joan Baez.
With a warbley falsetto that would sound infuriating if it was described to me, Silver Dagger is mesmerising introduction to this woman and her sound. A picked acoustic guitar and maybe a ukulele are all that back up Baez’s warble, and these minimal ingredients make for a powerful combination. East Virginia doubles down on all of that to such a degree, that I feel like I wasted the word ‘mesmerising’ on the previous track. This could so easily be misconstrued as a hymn, but there’s something in Beaz’s voice that makes me immediately know that this is nothing as cheap or manipulative has a hymn. This is the real deal.
A take on House of the Rising Sun like none other I’ve heard before, I’m really starting to get the Beaz appeal. Letting guitar notes ring out until they’re almost silent, letting her own voice ring out to the vanishing point, letting things get so quiet you can hardly anything at all before suddenly letting loose with a belting high note. Baez has such an understanding and command of dynamics that this simple song all of a sudden has more layers than I ever thought in my 30 plus years of hearing it performed by others.
Is “Hush little baby don’t you cry. You know your mamma was born to die” the most depressing lyric ever written? OK, maybe it’s not as depressingly bad as, “I am an arms dealer. Fitting you with weapons in the form of words”, but it’s still pretty jarring. Combined with what I am now seeing as the signature Joan Baez sound, All My Trials is the kind of song that can only be describes as haunting.
Wildwood Flower, Donna Donna and John Riley all sound like they should be sung by striking Kentucky coal miners as they take a break from the picket line. I say that with full confidence as an expert Kentucky coal miners. An expertise gained by watching the series finale of the awesome Justified a few weeks again, and having half watched the documentary Harlan County, USA a few years ago.
Joan Baez the album might not be the greatest album I’ve stumbled across as I use these reviews as an excuse to fill holes in my music listening credentials. But Joan Baez the artist is up there as one of the best surprises so far with these experiments. I thought I had no idea what to expect, but Joan Baez still managed to defy even the broadest, most non specific expectations.