Saturday, June 25, 2011
Mike Hurley - First Songs LP
The territory of the mail-order side of Eggy Records covers limited and art editions of tapes and LPs, which normally puts me on new, weird, generally untested ground. This is very much where I want to be, but it's always nice to shake things up a little. What we have here is a limited art edition of Michael Hurley's absolute classic first LP, recorded for the Folkways label in 1964. I know there's another reissue of this LP out there, and music-wise, the records are identical, the main difference being this version was made with more love. On to the music. Those of you familiar with his other records will be happy to hear that Michael Hurley has always -- since he was 14 and writing "Blue Mountain" -- been Michael Hurley. The pieces are all there; songs about animals, songs about trains, songs about drinking, light-hearted songs, songs that just level you with their--understated--sadness, above all the ramshackle guitar and Hurley Howl. By 1964, the "folk boom" was already fodder for music industry vultures but Hurley was lucky enough to side-step the hi-fi studios and savvy producers and make a record timeless in how completely unadorned it is. Another striking detail is the lack of political or traditional material -- Hurley is a folk musician because he had a guitar and taught himself how to play it in the relative isolation of his rural New Jersey upbringing. "Tea" is wonderful for how small the scope of it is. Think of "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" -- also deeply moving, also from the same era -- but so much more "poetic" in its distance from "real" events compared to a song that muses on the Buddha statuette with ruby eyes most likely propped on a nearby kitchen shelf, or just how many cups of tea to drink. It's really not until the late 60s and early 70s that other songwriters even come close to this kind of specific subject matter -- Cohen, Mitchell, etc. -- and even then it's in a way that's considerably more artful. Like "Tea," "Werewolf" is another song that appears first here but is a through-line in Hurley's entire oeuvre. It's a haunting song -- on the one hand, a fanciful tale of a werewolf on the prowl, on the other an unsettlingly direct take on regret and failing oneself. And my favorite Hurley song is on this record, "Blue Mountain." It's long, five or six minutes, though the lyrics are only three couplets, each repeated twice, each trading off with a sprawling guitar passage, the passages seeming to roam the mountain side to which the singer so longs to return. May be the widest song I've ever heard, horizon to horizon. Strange to think this was written by Hurley before his long life of wandering had begun, strange to think that that longing homeward could be so deeply present when home was all he had known.
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