"Fair & Square"
CHIP TAYLOR AND
"Red Dog Tracks"
Train Wreck/Back Porch
"Fair & Square," John Prine's first album of new material in 10 years, is not his best collection of songs, but it's one of the best-sounding records he's ever made. Prine's co-producer Gary Paczosa (engineer for Alison Krauss and the Dixie Chicks) fashions a luminous string-band backdrop for Prine's conversational delivery. The album has a number of weak songs -- where, as in Zippy the Pinhead cartoons, absurdist juxtapositions are substituted for content -- but even those boast seductive arrangements, creating the illusion that you're sitting on a fishing bank with an old philosopher.
And there are a handful of gems. "Crazy as a Loon" is an ode to escaping the rat race, a sequel of sorts to "Spanish Pipedream," and "Long Monday" is a fetching, understated love song. A live recording introduces "Other Side of Town," a song about a man who goes traveling mentally while he's being harangued by his loved ones. Who is that man? The answer can be found in "I Hate It When That Happens to Me," a funny number about songwriters pretending to write about someone else. "Some Humans Ain't Human," the most pointed political song Prine has ever written, has some good lines, but Prine's anger at President Bush ultimately overwhelms his craft.
The 65-year-old Chip Taylor, 51/2 years older than Prine, has also written a handful of pop standards, most notably "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning." He left music to become a professional gambler but returned to the stage in 1997. In 2002, he formed a duo with Carrie Rodriguez. It was an inspired idea, for Rodriguez, 27, is a classically trained fiddler with a lovely soprano that counterbalances Taylor's Prine-like croak and brings to life to his mostly solid songs. Their new release, "Red Dog Tracks," is by far the best of the duo's three studio collaborations. Taylor's writing has recovered the packed economy of his '60s work; the Americana arrangements now have an inviting leanness, and the give-and-take between the two singers at last sounds natural and relaxed.
The new disc features jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Kenny Wollesen, old-time banjoist Richie Stearns and bassist Jim Whitney behind the duo, and everyone plays with inspired restraint. When Taylor and Rodriguez sing "Must Be the Whiskey," the at-a-loss vocals and the lyrical picking soon make it clear that an impulsive love affair had little to do with moonshine or the shining moon and everything to do with the chemistry between the two principals. "Once Again, One Day . . . Will You Be Mine" is a romantic prayer so timeless it could have been recorded by the Carter Family, while the title track is a strange dialogue between a father and a daughter about a possible murder by Pascagoula Bay.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Saturday at the Warner Theatre.