Album Reviews: Various Artists - Appleseed's 21st Anniversary: Roots and Branches, Plus Albums by Michael Martin Murphey, Bella Plaine, Yum-Yum & Lee Michaels

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Appleseed ranks among a handful of small record companies that put at least two things before profits: human values and musical quality. Those priorities come through loud and clear on Appleseed’s 21st Anniversary: Roots and Branches, a three-CD label sampler that contains 57 tracks. 

Forty-eight of those selections have been culled from the company’s 165 prior album releases while the rest are exclusive to this set. The material is organized into three overlapping groups, corresponding to label founder Jim Musselman’s three goals for Appleseed: “to provide an outlet for songs of social justice” (disc one), “to release newly written songs of personal experience and emotion” (disc two), and “to keep alive the centuries of still-vital traditional songs from our country’s and our world’s history” (disc three).

The last place I saw so many great folk artists assembled was in my dreams. 

A merely partial list of the participants: Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Tom Paxton, Al Stewart, John Wesley Harding, Jesse Winchester, Jackson Browne, Jonathan Edwards, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Andersen, Tom Rush, Jimmy LaFave, Arlo Guthrie, John Gorka, Levon Helm, John Stewart, Donovan, Tom Russell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris, and David Bromberg.

The vast majority of the program is as impressive as this roster. Among the tracks that are exclusive to this set: an inventive reading by Springsteen, a longtime Appleseed supporter, of “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song),” the Lee Hays/Pete Seeger standard; a searing new version by John Wesley Harding of his song “Scared of Guns” that is dedicated to Parkland High School students; Jesse Winchester’s “Get It Right One Day,” which will remind you of how much we lost when he passed on; a wonderful rendition of the traditional “Wild Mountain Thyme” by Donovan; and an emotive version of Springsteen’s powerful “Across the Border,” by Tom Russell, an artist I’ve long maintained is a national treasure.

Other highlights include Pete Seeger’s “Bring Them Home (If You Love Your Uncle Sam),” where he trades verses with Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, and Anne Hills; the Kennedys’ “Give Me Back My Country”; John Stewart’s “Bay of Mexico”; a Jackson Browne/Bonnie Raitt duet on the Weavers’ “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”; a  version of the traditional “John Riley” by Roger McGuinn with Judy Collins; and Jesse Winchester’s “Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding,” one of the sweetest love songs you’ll ever hear. (When Winchester sang this number on Elvis Costello’s TV show, you could see a tear dripping down the face of fellow guest Neko Case.)

Even if you already own many of the earlier releases from which this material was drawn, you may want Appleseed’s 21st Anniversary for the tracks you’ve missed and the nine previously unavailable ones. And if you’re a folk fan who somehow doesn’t own any of the label’s material, you should definitely pick this up. Chances are, it won’t be the only Appleseed release on your shelf for long.

BRIEFLY NOTED

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Michael Martin Murphey, Austinology—Alleys of Austin. “The mission of this album,” says Michael Martin Murphey, “is to reflect the ‘cosmic cowboy’ style of songwriting that developed among the music artists that converged on Austin, Texas from about 1968-1975, before the term ‘outlaw’ took over.” Many of Murphey’s friends—including Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Gary P. Nunn, Steve Earle, and Jerry Jeff Walker—join in the effort, which features new versions of some of his best-known songs, such as “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” and, of course, “Cosmic Cowboy.” Also here are compositions by Walker, Townes Van Zandt, and others. Murphey has always straddled a line between alt-country and mainstream pop, and there are some fluffy moments here that sound pretty far from anything you’d expect from an “outlaw” or “cosmic cowboy.” That said, Austinology embraces more winners than losers, among them Murphey’s own gorgeous “Wildfire” and a surprisingly hard-rocking version of the late Guy Clark’s classic “LA Freeway” that features the Last Bandoleros.

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Belle Plaine, Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath. Most of the songs on this album are credited to Melanie Hankewich, so I initially thought Plaine was just a talented interpreter with a gorgeous voice that manages to be redolent of both Emmylou Harris and Marianne Faithfull. Turns out, though, that she’s also a good songwriter—Hankewich is her real name. Highlights on this country/folk package, which benefits from a generous dose of twangy guitar, include “Golden Ring,” about a fading marriage; and “Laila Sady Johnson Wasn’t Beaten By No Train,” a true story about Plaine’s grandmother, who survived being hit by a train. (The album’s title comes from this song’s chorus, where Plaine sings, “A machine can bear no malice / Mercy, grief, or wrath.”)

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Yum-Yum, Dan Loves Patti. This album is almost as addictive as the salty tortilla chips I was munching on when I first heard it. Initially released in 1998, it is being reissued with ten bonus tracks, including great covers of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” and the Ronettes’ “Baby, I Love You.” “I got sick of angry music telling everybody how tough you were,” says Chris Holmes, the guy responsible for this gem, whose sweet, lushly produced music employs rich harmonies and makes extensive use of violin, viola, and cello, plus French horn, flugelhorn, and mellotron. Holmes cites bubblegum pop as an influence (he specifically mentions Tommy James’s “Crimson and Clover” and the 1910 Fruitgum Company), which isn’t surprising; but there’s more art—and rock—here than at least the latter reference would suggest. Holmes seems to have staked out a magical place between Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Go there and enjoy.

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Lee Michaels, Nice Day for Something and Tailface. You’re probably about as old as I am if the name Lee Michaels rings a bell: he has not released an album in more than 40 years, and he had only one major hit, 1971’s “Do You Know What I Mean,” which made it to No. 5 in Billboard. Manifesto Records reissued all of his A&M label albums about three years ago; now it is releasing the pair of Columbia albums that followed: Nice Day for Something, which originally appeared in 1973, and Tailface, a brief (30-minute, seven-song) LP from 1974. The music on both holds up well. As on the aforementioned hit, the recipe on these albums relies heavily on Michaels’s soulful vocals and organ work, but you may be surprised by how much diversity and creativity these discs embrace.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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