CHRISTINE LAVIN hosts a special Christmas show at the Birchmere Friday and Saturday with special guests Patty Larkin, John Gorka and David Wilcox. This holiday party will also celebrate a most successful year for folk music. Clubs or coffeehouses with regular acoustic folk shows now exist in Alexandria, Washington, College Park, Annapolis, Ellicott City and Frederick, and folk albums and folk radio shows now seem more plentiful than ever. Here's a look at some new albums by Lavin's guests from her last album and their friends:
John Gorka "Land of the Bottom Line" (Windham Hill). Gorka co-wrote "Sensitive New Age Guys" with Christine Lavin and sings on the version of it on Lavin's "Attainable Love." Gorka's own new album is one of the year's best acoustic singer-songwriter efforts. The generous helping of 15 songs is consistently strong, for Gorka eschews the usual self-pity and romantic fantasies of his crowd to provide a drily understated realism. "Take this as a warning to stay away from me," he sings to an ex-lover in a deadpan voice with a hint of viciousness, and all the songs cut through sentimental nonsense just as directly. Few folk or rock songs have approached stolen cars from the victim's perspective, but the unorthodox Gorka captures that particular anger most vividly on "Stranger in My Driver's Seat."
Cliff Eberhardt "The Long Road" (Windham Hill). Eberhardt is also a member of the Sensitive New Age Guys Choir that sang on Lavin's last album. Unfortunately, the label is all too apt for Eberhardt, whose own songs are overly impressed with their own sensitivity. Eberhardt's lyrics, which seem to be set in no particular time or place, offer a sentimental glorification of true love little different from that of Lionel Richie or John Denver. The vague sentimentality of the lyrics is matched by the formulaic folk-pop music, and when Richie Havens sings a duet vocal on "The Long Road," he exposes the essential blandness of Eberhardt's own vocals.
Patty Larkin "In the Square" (Philo). Before she became a singer-songwriter, Larkin studied guitar at the Berklee College of Music, and played in jazz, Irish and rock settings before settling on the folk format. That experience gives her a definite musical edge over most major-chord strumming folk singers, and her accomplished musicality is the highlight of her new live album. Recorded before a hometown crowd in Cambridge's Harvard Square, the album contains just three of her old songs, eight new originals, two inspired covers (including the Box Tops' "The Letter") plus two impressive guitar instrumentals. Accompanied only by bassist Richard Gates, Larkin creates enough varied moods to make the simple voice-and-guitar approach work for 51 minutes.
Greg Brown "Down in There" (Red House). The omnipresent Shawn Colvin, who also sings on Gorka's and Eberhardt's albums, pops up again on Brown's latest effort. On his previous album, Brown made an unconvincing move toward mainstream rock; on "Down in There," the Iowa singer- songwriter rediscovers his gift for sharply observed detail and understated monologues. Sometimes he uses his punchy rock 'n' roll band; sometimes he relies on his own acoustic guitar, but either way, his tuneful stories conjure up a whole world of Midwestern down-and-outers who miss their too-short childhood as they cope with battle-scarred lovers and drunken good friends.
Herdman, Hills, Mangsen "Voices" (Flying Fish). New York State's Priscilla Herdman, Pennsylvania's Anne Hills and Vermont's Cindy Mangsen have each established solid careers as solo performers, but have joined forces as the folk-coffeehouse equivalent of the Harris-Ronstadt-Parton "Trio." Their vocal harmonies on the mostly traditional material are nicely reinforced by cellist/producer Abby Newton, who weaves fiddle, accordion and Magpie Terry Leonino's harmonica into lean, elegant chamber-folk arrangements. Unfortunately, the album packaging is a mess: no composer credits, no lead vocal credits and incorrect track listings.
Various artists "On a Winter's Night: Ballads to Warm the Heart" (North Star). This anthology of acoustic love songs features selections from Lavin, Gorka and Herdman, Hills, Mangsen. Also included are selections from Bill Morrissey, David Wilcox and Cheryl Wheeler (with Jonathan Edwards on harmony). Five of the 15 songs have never been released before, including a strong guitar showcase for Larkin and a catchy pop number from Buskin & Batteau. A few of the songs are overly "sensitive new age," but others -- especially those by Larkin, Gorka and Morrissey -- acknowledge the difficulty of love even as they celebrate it.