Two veterans of the Newport Folk Festival -- whose planned revival next weekend went the way of Woodstock II -- have new albums: Joan Baez's "Honest Lullaby" (Portrait JR 35766) and Maria Muldaur's "Open Your Eyes" (Warner Bros. BSK 3305).
"Honest Lullaby" is disturbingly ambivalent, torn between the artist's personal past and her political present. Baez recruited Muscle Shoals producer Barry Beckett and some of Nashville's finest. Beckett's reputation has recently lured everyone from Phoebe Snow to Bob Dylan into his studio, but his distinctive imprimatur is virtually invisible on this release. The arrangements are simple, clean and clearly tailored to serve as a backdrop. Of the 10 tracks on the album, Baez had a hand in writing four.
As a lyricist, Baez's congested wordplay has always been conspicuous. On the title track, and in particular on her composition "Michael," it is contrived as well, and might be laughable were it not for her convincing gift for unfolding a narrative. It is to her credit that a song that alludes to "Mary Hamilton," "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," "House of the Rising Sun" and "Careless Love" simply doesn't collapse of its own weight.
Elsewhere on the album, as in the past, Baez displays her sweet tooth for pop confection (the Bellamy Brothers' "Let Your Love Flow") and her enduring affinity for Jackson Browne's pseudo-apocalyptic imagery ("The Deluge"). The album's special moments, however, are reserved for the spiritual adaptation of the reggae number "No Woman, No Cry" and "For Sasha," an account of a German officer's role in the Holocaust -- certainly one of Baez's finest compositions to date. Despite her flirtation with other forms, Baez continues to derive her strength from the wellspring of traditional ballads and spirituals.
Since Maria Muldaur released her first album in 1973, she has grown rather predictable in her ways. And there isn't much on "Open Your Eyes" to distinguish it from her last release. As usual, she has surrounded herself with a few fixtures (David Nichtern and Amos Garrett), a couple of notable guests (Stevie Wonder and Jr. Walker), and arrangements laden with horns and strings.
Although impressively crafted, the melodies on her new record are sluggishly uniform -- many of them unmistakably patterned after her two biggest selling singles: the sultry "Midnight at the Oasis" and the R & B -- John Hiatt's "(No More) Dancin' in the Streets" and the jive tune "Clean Up Woman" -- is a bit more spirited but equally familiar.
Only on the hauntingly melancholy version of "Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)" is there room or inspiration for Muldaur's gifted nuances. Always a half step behind the beat, she deftly works the words around Amos Garrett's fluid guitar and up against Marshall Royal's seasoned saxophone. For once on the album, Muldaur is heard singing (and moving) with graceful precision and warmth -- qualities that once served her well at Newport.