by: Jesse Kornbluth, - full review here
Fair and Square -
A classic song doesn't belong to its creator. It's ours. We take it into our lives and use it for our purposes and sing it in the car or the shower --- we own it so completely we might as well have written and recorded it ourselves. "My favorite song." It's like that.
What are the elements of a classic song? No one can quite say. But some people seem to have the knack of not trying to write them --- and then rolling them out with frightening regularity. Like John Prine.
Prine was once a prodigy, the next savior of the music business. At a tender age, he was introduced to Kris Kristofferson, and the next thing he knew, Kristofferson had called him up on stage. Prince sang a few songs on a borrowed guitar. Kristofferson announced, "No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy. John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs." The legendary producer, Jerry Wexler, was in the audience. The following day, he offered Prine a recording contract.
Prine is such a natural songwriter that on his first album he used two songs he wrote when he was fourteen. At 19, he wrote "Hello In There," a song about senior citizens that will bring audiences to tears until the end of time. For thirty years, he went his own way, pleasing himself and, in the process, delighting his loyal audience. And now, on the cusp of 60, he has a new CD that is studded with classics.
These songs have an inevitability about them; it seems there's no other way they could have been recorded. I could cite examples until I bore you to death, but let's look at the first few stanzas of "Long Monday," the song I can't get out of my head:
You and me
Sittin' in the back of my memory
Like a honey bee
Buzzin' 'round a glass of sweet Chablis
Windows rolled up
And my mind's rolled down
Like silver moons
Rollin' on the ground
We made love
In every way love can be made
And we made time
Look like time
Could never fade
We both made the guitar hum
Saturday made Sunday feel
Like it would never come
Gonna be a long Monday
Sittin' all alone on a mountain
By a river that has no end
Gonna be a long Monday
Stuck like the tick of a clock
That's come unwound - again
First, the lyric line: It's more spoken than sung. Which gives you the feeling that anyone --- namely: you --- could "sing" it (but maybe no one could sing it better than a guy who's fought off neck cancer). Second, the subject: Many of us have been blessed by relationships that make a weekend fly. And then "long Monday" --- you just know he's going to stretch that "long" out, don't you? And how about those last two lines? Isn't that "again" --- almost an afterthought, really --- a killer?
Prine's CD is so satisfying, so easy to put on the machine and play all day, so damn comfortable that it almost seemed that Prine had intimate access to my head. It was like, "These are my songs. This is how I feel. So how did this guy in Nashville come to write and sing them?" That was when I decided that I wanted to talk to John Prine. That's usually a terrible idea --- in my experience, you do best never to meet your heroes. But this thing could be arranged, and, in short order, I discovered that the smart, laid-back, endlessly amused persona of John Prine on "Faire & Square" is very close to the actual person I was talking to.
Here are the Greatest Hits of that conversation:
HB: Why do these songs sound so familiar
JP: Because this was the most comfortable I've ever been in the studio. I sang these songs in concert over the last 3 years. I knew they fit, I knew people liked them.
HB: “Hello In There” was an instant classic. Forty years later, can you bear to perform it?
JP: More than any other song, it gets stronger every day for me. I never tire of singing it. I don't know how I came up with such a pretty melody. It was an exercise --- to use every chord I had ever heard. I paid a guy five bucks to write it out so I could publish it. I couldn't believe it when he played it on piano
HB: Some of these new songs are so funny, do you laugh while you write them?
JP: I laugh at the funny lines --- hey, I laugh at even the serious stuff. When it's going well, I feel like I'm taking dictation. But I don't have hundreds of songs waiting --- you've heard them all.
HB: Do they come out in a rush?
JP: I type so slow I can edit as I write
HB: You say you're lazy. Do you feel guilty when you go for months and don't write?
JP: I 'm not Catholic, I'm not Jewish --- I can talk myself out of feeling guilty. Because it's easier to not write. I only love the songs I have to write. I trust a song like that --- a song straight from the gut. There are some really good songs that, if you don't write them down, someone else will.
HB: On "Fair & Square," there's a political song, "Some Humans Ain't Human" --- but it's mostly funny, with only one direct reference to the President.
JP: I always felt that way about protest and politics --- include it in your conversation instead of raving about it.
HB: How does that song go over in the red states?
JP: When I'm first singing about some issue, people change the subject. Later, it seems about right.
HB: What's your daily media intake?
JP: I hardly read at all. My wife reads three books at a time, but I read “Archie and Veronica” --- in the comic book form.
HB: Who do you listen to?
JP: I buy a lot of CDs, and I listen to them once. But Van [Morrison] or Bob [Dylan] or Merle [Haggard] --- I listen carefully to all of those.
HB: Taking care of yourself?
JP: I have a poor diet --- I'm a meat and potatoes guy. That has something to do with how I see things. There are no peas on my plate.
"No peas on my plate" is a throwaway line from a song John Prine will never write. No loss. The songs he wrote will do just fine. Not country. Not rock. Not folk. Just...songs. With no gimmicks. I guess if you write classics, that's good enough.
By: Richard Marcus is a long - haired Canadian iconoclast who writes reviews and opines on the world as he sees it at Leap In The Dark http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark and Desicritics http://desicritics.org/
Full Review here at blogcritics:
A few years back, I ran across an acquaintance of mine who I'd almost forgotten about. Well, he's not really anyone I know personally, but John Prine has been around for most of my adult music listening life. He feels like one of those folk you'd see everyday on the bus on the way to work or school. Someone you'd not be friends with but whose company you come to accept as part of your life. *** Then one day, you change jobs, or leave school, and you stop seeing them. Years later, if you happen to run into them, no matter what the circumstances, they provide a comfortable feeling of familiarity in a world which might not have turned out the way you expected it. So it is with John Prine and his music.
I had been listening to him all the way through the seventies, starting with his first release on Atlantic Records, John Prine, with the three songs he's still probably best known for: "Hello In There", "Illegal Smile", and "Sam Stone". Sweet Revenge has "Christmas In Prison" and "Dear Abby", and anything else he put out in those first ten or twelve years of his career were part of my musical landscape. There was even one memorable concert experience during that time before his voice started to deteriorate in the late eighties and early nineties.
It wasn't until 1996 that it was discovered John had a cancerous growth on the outside of his neck. The first doctor he went to told him not to worry about it and it was another year before anyone bothered with it. When it was discovered to be malignant, the doctors did their best to shield his larynx from the radiation to preserve his vocal chords, and he's come out the other side with his voice only slightly deeper.
When he was fully recovered from the treatments, John wrote an open letter to those who liked his music and songs, indicating he was ready to go back out on the road again and was feeling better than he had in a long time. The casual informality of his relationship with his fans, like that fellow passenger I talked about earlier, allowed him to say he hoped "… my neck is looking forward to its job of holding my head up above my shoulders" as much as he was to getting back to singing.
It was the Billy Bob Thornton movie, Daddy And Them (a movie worth watching just to hear Andy of Mayberry worry about being "corn holed"), that brought John Prine back into my life. Not only did he play one of Billy Bob's dysfunctional family members in the movie (he turns out to be the one willing to push the family to pull itself together), he provided a song for the movie, "In Spite Of Ourselves", a typically bittersweet love song about a couple similar to the one portrayed by Billy Bob and Laura Dern. Somehow or other, despite all the strikes against them, they are able to love each other and find a way of making it work. *** It was the title song from an album John had done where he teamed up with a variety of women vocalists to record some of the classic duets of country music. After watching the movie, I rushed out and picked up a copy of it and rediscovered the joy of listening to John Prine all over again. The interesting thing was he had only written the one song, "In Spite Of Ourselves," of the fourteen tracks recorded, but he is so distinctive in style and presentation the songs became his.
Except perhaps for the duets with Iris Dement, the rest of the tracks were John Prine accompanied by someone else. That has nothing to do with him hogging the spotlight or lack of talent on the part of the other singer, but more to do with the strength of his personality. Just singing and playing guitar, he has presence people with twice his fame and notoriety can only dream of.
But to really appreciate John, you have to listen to him singing his own music and you need look no further than his most recent release on his Oh Boy Records label, Fair & Square, to experience that treat. In fact, if you're like me and still relatively new to coming back to listening to him, you'll be happy to know he seems to have obtained a comfort level absent for the longest time.
His songs are still matter of fact, with only some poetic flights of fancy to soften the edges of reality, but it's the unsentimental nature of his material that gives it such universal appeal. Songs like "Glory Of True Love" sings the praises and itemizes the merits of true love in terms we can all relate to, but without being simple or melodramatic. The tune is so up-tempo and cheerful, you wonder why everyone else makes such a meal out of the subject.
His biggest strength as a songwriter has always been his ability to make his listener empathize with his subject matter; the old couple in "Hello In There" is a perfect example. He shows he hasn't lost his touch on Fair & Square, with songs like "Long Monday" and its lyrics about the feelings of longing generated by missing someone you care for deeply, and "Some Humans Ain't Human" with its description of the ways in which people can be mean to each other and some folk, including Presidents of the United States, just don't get it.
Although his other recent works, Missing Years and Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, have been good discs (his duet on the latter with Marianne Faithful is not to be missed), the Grammy award winning Fair & Square from 2005 seems to have recaptured the intangible elements of his songwriting and performing that made his earlier work so memorable.
If that person you used to see on the bus all the time began to sing you his songs and managed to make it feel that, of all the people on the bus, he was singing only for you, it would go some ways in describing Prine at his best. Although Fair & Square wasn't written for you alone, it sure feels like it was, and there's no finer feeling than having a CD performed just for you. ***
Venue: Fair and Square
Date: April 15, 2005
By: Robert Christgau
JOHN PRINE *** Fair and Square *** Oh Boy ***
Happily married old-timer suffers enough to come up with an album Because John Prine has ranked among our finest songwriters for 35 years, his first album of new material in a decade is a gift. Its two undeniable keepers are up there with his "Hello in There" and "Lake Marie": the weary "Some Humans Ain't Human," a Nashville immigrant's mild, devastating rebuke to the greedheads he rubs shoulders with, and the jolly "She Is My Everything," which makes you wonder why other guys find it so hard to write credible love songs about wives they adore. Most of them do, however--domestic bliss is hell on the confessional muse. And while Prine's fans will admire how smoothly he downshifts from contentment to melancholy and back up again, the unconverted will wish he'd stop relaxing into indirection and Sunday drives down well-traveled roads.
Blender, May 2005
Richard Marcus Review
Fair & Square (Oh Boy, 2005)
His voice is a bit gnarled from battling throat cancer, but his pen's as sharp as ever. "I Hate it When That Happens to Me" and "Crazy as a Loon" are funny tunes about the insanity of life. But even at his wackiest – "Some Humans Ain't Human" – his songs sound as if Confucius wrote them. ~ Thor Christensen
Press Release: Oh Boy Records - 01/28/2005 -- John Prine - Fair and Square
First New Original Music In 9 Years Hits Streets April 26
Nashville: John Prine takes his own sweet time dancing with his muse -- and truly writes what's in his soul. So if it takes him a little longer to write the songs that capture moments and reveal the gently folded human truths that bind us all together, it's always worth the wait. Now, nearly nine years since the release of his Grammy-nominated Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, the iconic American writer is putting the finishing touches on Fair & Square, which will be released on Prine's Oh Boy label April 26th.
"It was just time," says Prine in his always understated way. "I had a bunch of songs. I'd started recording 'em, and it turns out, I liked 'em pretty well. So, now, I get to get'em all just the way I like 'em -- and then I get to let'em go out to meet the world."
Drawing on Prine's incomparable sweetness, his wicked wit and social commentary and his split rail simplicity, Fair & Square turns on the phases of the human heart -- and the way the people getting by live, dream, love and survive their lives. With the occasional wheezing accordion, curlique electric guitar parts, quick-wristed mandolins, billowing B-3 pads and puddles of pedal steel guitar, the rough-voiced singer/songwriter's first self-produced record is a homey affair that draws generously from the palette of traditional American music -- be it folk, bluegrass, shuffles, almost vintage rock & roll, torch, country -- for an amalgamation that would be at home on any Wurlitzer in a whiskey-soaked tavern with beer signs flickering from age and the walls stained deeper than sepia from the years of constant smoke.
Whether it's the sultry celebration of post-encounter rapture "Morning Train," the afterglow burning until the next moment can happen "Long Monday" or the down-stroke electric guitar charged "She Is My Everything," Fair & Square captures Prine's candy heart. But there's also the Joshua Tree dry wit of our culture's tabloid obsessive culture "I Hate It When That Happens To Me" and the fame-chasing self-mockery of "Crazy As A Loon., not to mention the gentle political nudge "Some Humans Ain't Human" that's soft-spoken indictment at its most aw-shucks.
With bluegrass queen Allison Krauss on the ode to his Irish refuge "My Darlin' Hometown" and the street corner desolation of "The Moon Is Down" and alt.country princess Mindy Smith bringing allure and tartness to "Morning Train, "Long Monday" and the melted neon ponder of "Taking A Walk," Fair & Square is the work of a man at ease with his life, secure with his place in the world and willing to share the things that he sees.
"It's been a while, so I'm pretty excited," Prine admits with that Oh Boy! grin. "And that's a really good place to be."
Tour dates will follow shortly. Advance music is being pulled together.
But given the working class Midwestern origin of the Grammy-winning songwriter, you can bet the songs will be served -- and the fans who want to see and hear them will have their chance.
John Prine “Fair & Square”
(Oh Boy 2005) Review by Pete Gow
Nearly a decade in the making, but at last a record that truly captures the spirit of one of the original hard-core troubadours….. Never prone to proclivity (it has been nine years since the Grammy nominated ‘Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings’) what you can be assured of with each new John Prine release is that it will be a considered piece of work. Sometimes that is the problem; Too considered, too polished and too technically perfect. This trait, it appears, has been reversed for ‘Fair & Square’, which has a production that hits you fair & square between the eyes (See what I did there?). The first punch is ‘Glory of True Love’, a ramshackle, celebratory rock- a- spiritual that demands sitting up & taking notice. From then on in, the quality never gives out & never gives up. It sounds like it was written and recorded over nine days, never mind years. Prine has been making records of an appropriately high standard since his self-written, self-titled debut in 1971. He has been running mates with Kris Kristofferson and Steve Goodman over time and now, since forming his own Oh Boy label in the nineties has nurtured and channelled maverick talents such as Todd Snider. The selection here is what we have come to expect from a classic John Prine album, a bit of blues (Morning Train), a couple of comedy numbers (Crazy as a Loon, Safety Joe), some homespun politics (Some Humans Ain’t Human) and no end of perfectly constructed folk- country ballads (pretty much the rest). As well as a good helping of Prine originals, there are a few co- writes and inspired readings of A.P Carter’s ‘Bear Creek Blues’ and Blaze Foley’s ‘Clay Pigeons’ – for me, one of the greatest country songs ever written.
While not considering myself a John Prine aficionado, I have never really been impressed with the way he has had his voice represented on record. It is one of the most singular & expressive vocals in country music, but he has allowed it to be sweetened in postproduction, a shadow of it’s natural self. For evidence of this, simply check out any of his live performances against their recorded counterparts. Fair & Square, again, bucks this trend. For these songs, Prine has employed a close mic technique, void of any glaring reverbs, which brings his dry, smoky tenor to the fore. He has always been just as engaging vocally as Kristofferson, or Nelson (albeit for different reasons) but this has never been fully exploited until now. So with the quality of the material, the recording & performances being beyond reproach, my only real criticism comes toward the end of Fair & Square. The final track, proper, is ‘Bear Creek Blues’ which rocks, rolls & rumbles, standing toe- to – toe with Ryan Adams ‘To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)’ for sheer youthful punk exuberance. We then have two ‘Bonus Tracks’, the general concept of which I find hateful (although I do hate them less than ‘hidden’ tracks), feeling they really affect the balance of a record. The first is a live recording of the, admittedly hilarious, ‘Other Side of Town’ followed by ‘Safety Joe’, another studio track, which descends into laughter when John Wilkes Booth’s mandolin solo is playing the wrong part of the song. This is as good a way as any to finish the record and I think should have been included on the original album, eliminating the need for a bonus live track stuck in between – Still, who the fuck am I to tell John Prine how to sequence his records? – He wrote ‘There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes’, what have I ever done? Fair & Square is a fantastic album, in spite of my best endeavours to offer a rounded appraisal & if we have to wait nearly a decade for him to deliver it’s follow up, then so be it. www.johnprine.net. PG