Monday, February 15, 2010

"to fly over the mountain, though i'm standing still...."

[initially published October 30, 2007, on the now-defunct website]

When a new live release from Karla Bonoff (titled, reasonably enough, Live) arrived in the mail recently, my first impulse wasn't to put its two discs into the CD player, but rather to pull out my tattered old vinyl copy of her 1977 self-titled solo debut and play IT instead.

Such is the lifelong blessing and curse of artists who make a classic album right outta the gate. Think Marshall Crenshaw's self-titled debut; the Cowboy Junkies' The Trinity Session (though it wasn't technically their first); Willis Alan Ramsey's first (and, still, only) record .... all so good that the artists in question have spent the rest of their careers trying to live up to such perfect beginnings.

Bonoff's debut was that good, and she's certainly well aware of it. She wrote eight of the record's ten songs, and all eight of those songs are among the 21 tracks on her new live disc. Clearly she's come to terms with the reality that her fan base still wants to hear all those songs, and when it comes down to it, that's a good thing. There are worse fates than having written an entire album's worth of material that stands the test of time three decades later.

The new live versions (recorded at shows in California and Japan) are quite good; Bonoff remains in fine voice, even as she's inevitably tuned down a step for "If He's Ever Near" (and yet she still hits some majestic high notes in "Falling Star", my personal favorite from that first record). It's also fair to note that the other thirteen tracks are more than chopped liver; especially of note is "Wild Heart Of The Young", the title track to her 1981 album. Conspicuously absent from the live collection is her lone top-40 hit, 1982's "Personally", but that's just fine by me, as that song always seemed a little bit lightweight compared to the emotional depth and resonance of Bonoff's best work.

It's worth acknowledging that I probably would never have become familiar with Bonoff way back then if not for the influence of my older brother Si, who had a fair bit to do with the development of my musical tastes in those formative years. I may have listened to the album then in large part because Si played it and I just liked what I heard; but I'm struck all these years later by just how strong a record it really is, the kind of songwriter's statement that definitively proves an artist's worth, much like Lucinda Williams' self-titled 1988 record (indeed, Lucinda's "Like A Rose" from that album seems to echo "Rose In The Garden" from Bonoff's debut), or perhaps Iris DeMent's "Infamous Angel".

Bonoff never did become a big star -- in some ways, her greatest notoriety came from Linda Ronstadt having covered three of her debut album's songs on her 1976 blockbuster Hasten Down The Wind -- but she did seem to earn a reputation as one of the best singer-songwriters to come out of the 1970s SoCal scene. She certainly deserves that respect.

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