CD Review: Various Artists – The Beautiful Old: Turn-of-the-Century Songs (Doubloon, 2013)
Turn of the twentieth century songs revisited
The turn of the twentieth century was a tumultuous time for the music industry. The sheet music boom of the 1890s was giving way to the sale of phonograph records, and records would in turn be challenged by radio. But through these transitions, one thing remained constant: hit songs. But hit songs were becoming increasingly transitory idols, one replacing the next in a procession of quickly forgotten multi-platinum (that is, multi-million selling) favorites. A select few managed to stick in the public’s long-term memory, but many more remained extant only in printed form, waiting to be rediscovered by musical explorers. Such explorers are producers Paul Marsteller and Gabriel Rhodes, who have reanimated nineteen turn-of-the-century songs – both familiar and obscure – with a hand-picked crew of singers and instrumentalists.
Unlike a tribute that reconsiders a songwriter, performer, label or scene, this collection aims at framing an era of music making. It’s not a slavish reproduction – the vocals occasionally shade to phrasings that didn’t exist at the time these songs were written – but by limiting themselves to instruments in use at the time, the producers have created a general impression of the times in which these songs were originally heard. And by cherry-picking their vocalists, Marsteller and Rhodes have nicely matched voices to song. Richard Thompson and Christine Collister open with one of the collection’s most easily remembered tunes, “The Band Played On.” Listeners will quickly discover that while the title line flows easily from their memories, the lyrics seem brand new to their ears. Thompson’s theatrical vocal is a perfect fit for the circus-style melody, and Garth Hudson adds terrific accordion flourishes.
Other familiar songs, “The Flying Trapeze,” “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Home Sweet Home” and “I Love You Truly,” will tickle your memory with their melodies and titles, and “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” will be especially familiar to fans of Young Frankenstein. Kimmie Rhodes adds a whispery fragility to three numbers, Jimmy LaFave draws deeply upon the wistfulness of “Long Time Ago,” and Kim Richey sings the original, nostalgic lyrics to “Beautiful Ohio.” The themes are genteel and timeless, with love discovered, courted and lost, risky adventures, faddish technology, and the longing of those far from home. The set’s 20-page booklet includes lyrics, and the accompanying website provides song histories, original sheet music covers and more.