THE SAME GENERATION that fell in love with Bob Dylan's folk songs in college is now turning 40. Many of the acoustic troubadors who still serve that generation have grown soft and comfortable with their audience; too many folk singer-songwriters pander with a new-age haze of nature imagery, encounter-group advice and pompous self-seriousness.
Fortunately, there are still some songwriters who use an acoustic guitar to prod their listeners with irreverence, irony and relentless detail -- just as Dylan did, originally. Here's a sampling of both the good and bad:
MICHAEL SMITH --
"Michael Smith" (Flying Fish FF 404). This was probably the best acoustic singer-songwriter album of 1987. Smith comes out of the Chicago folk tradition of John Prine, Steve Goodman and Tom Paxton, and with this album he emerges as their peer. The eight, long songs weave mesmerizing narratives about a panther loose in the suburbs, a lover back from the dead, a police informer, a senile old man and the last hepcat in Pompeii. The lyrics conjure up times and places with pithy detail and present their contradictions without easy solutions. Smith's calm, knowing voice and folk guitar are nicely framed by Julianne Macarus' country fiddle and Larry Gray's jazz bass.
JOHN GORKA --
"I Know" (Red House RHR18). This was the genre's best debut album last year. Pennsylvania's Gorka, who opens for Steve Gillette at the Birchmere Wednesday, has a sturdy, rhythmic baritone voice that's perfect for his down-to-earth songs about B. B. King, Judy Garland, love gone wrong and factory towns. The personal intimacy of his folk confessionals is well balanced by the street-smart skepticism of his blues. Gorka gets perceptive support from producer Bill Kollar, arranger Janice Kollar, fiddler Robin Batteau and guitarist Frank Christian.
JOHN STEWART --
"Punch the Big Guy" (The Ship/Cypress 661 117-1). Stewart's career stretches across 27 years of folk hootenannies, country-rock cult albums and rock-pop hits. This new album is his latest comeback attempt, but he strains so hard to make major statements that he comes up empty-handed. Recorded with such Nashville pros as Rosanne Cash and the New Grass Revival, the songs are doomed by their liberal breast-beating and vacuous mysticism. Stewart tackles South Africa, war and aging baby boomers only to reveal that he has nothing to say about them -- no matter how concerned he sounds. Stewart joins his former colleagues in the Kingston Trio plus Buskin & Batteau, Schooner Fare, Christine Lavin, Steve Gillette Pete Kennedy and others at the third annual World Folk Music Association concert at Lisner Auditorium Saturday.
BUSKIN & BATTEAU --
"B&B" (Single Wing BB2012). This New York duo, who emerged from Tom Rush's band, is sometimes a bit too glib for its own good. Pianist David Buskin and guitarist/fiddler Robin Batteau are so adept with catchy melodies (they also write ad jingles) and cabaret-folk arrangements that they can whip up entertaining but slight songs at will. So they have here. When they reach a bit deeper, though, they're capable of something quite moving. They achieve that on this album's opening and closing cuts: the autobiographical "These Nights" and "Never Cry Wolf," a stunning tribute to the late Kate Wolf.
BOB FRANKE --
"For Real" (Flying Fish FF 368). New England's Franke, who performs for the Folklore Society of Greater Washington at the Washington Ethical Society Auditorium Saturday, is a fine guitarist who can hold his own with the jazz musicians on this album; he's also a fine singer whose low tenor is full of character. As a lyricist, however, he's prone to a precious sentimentality, a smug religiosity and an unconvincing optimism. In an acoustic setting like this, the lyrics have to carry a lot of the weight, and here they fall down on the job.
GEOF MORGAN --
"Talk it Over" (Flying Fish FF 436). Morgan, a former Nashville tunesmith, now writes songs as a sort of advice columnist for the "new sensitive male." He prescribes the enlightened approach to dating, spouse abuse, AIDS and living together. The advice is sound, but it's also preachy and boring. He also offers a few political songs as blunt as picket-line slogans.