Dark Chords on a Big Guitar

Dark Chords on a Big Guitar

5.0 4
by Joan Baez

The incomparable Joan Baez’s first album in six years does not disappoint. Ms. Baez picks outstanding songs from the cream of today’s crop of upcoming singer-songwriters, including two each from Greg Brown and Gillian Welch/David Rawlings. Even if you’ve heard these songs before, when Baez endows them with her signature soprano, the poetry of the lyrics increases…  See more details below


The incomparable Joan Baez’s first album in six years does not disappoint. Ms. Baez picks outstanding songs from the cream of today’s crop of upcoming singer-songwriters, including two each from Greg Brown and Gillian Welch/David Rawlings. Even if you’ve heard these songs before, when Baez endows them with her signature soprano, the poetry of the lyrics increases exponentially. Baez bathes with obvious love such lines as “Life is a thump-ripe melon, so sweet and such a mess” (“Rexroth’s Daughter") and “There was silver and begonias, dynamite and cattle” (“Wings”). Mark Spector and a team of engineers take equally good care of the production, resulting in outstanding quality and clarity of sound. Three songs, appropriately placed in the middle, make up the spiritual center of the album: “Motherland,” “Wings,” and “Rexroth’s Daughter,” from which the title was derived. Baez segues seamlessly from one to the next -- all are in a minor key, all get treated with lots of atmospheric electric guitar, and all speak to the concept of coming home, to finding a place of peace and safety, whether a person, a place, or an object. In these turbulent times, such a place is the ultimate gift, and for the duration of this album, Baez offers it up. Highly recommended.

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Editorial Reviews

All Music Guide - Thom Jurek
Six years is a long time to go between albums, especially for an artist who has recorded as sporadically as Joan Baez has over the last decade-and-a-half. And while her last outing, Gone From Danger, with songs by Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, and other contemporary singer/songwriters, was a milestone for Baez, it was merely an appetizer for the depth and weight that is Dark Chords on a Big Guitar. Here Baez uses her uncanny gift for song selection to choose material from a different generation of songwriters. She's moved away from the precious New England types, and looked instead to the moodier, murkier, sketchier material by scribes who've been comfortable walking the edges for awhile: Greg Brown, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary, Joe Henry, Josh Ritter, and even chart-topper Natalie Merchant. Produced by Mark Spector, Baez used her road band on the album; it includes the criminally under-noticed Duke McVinnie on guitars. Brown's "Sleeper," with its quietly transcendent narrative of love's revelation, opens the record only to dovetail into the brokenness, desperation, and prayerful entreaty for love that is Adams' "In My Time of Need." Cary's "Rosemary Moore" is a Patsy Cline-meets-the-Cowboy Junkies-styled country lounge tune. What these first three songs reveal is that even though her voice is no longer a huge, ringing instrument, Baez is a better interpretive vocalist than ever before. Because of her reduced range and reedier tone, she seeks new ways to get inside her material and does so in startling ways. While she may no longer have the vocal range to rouse an entire generation to action en masse, she more than succeeds at getting the listener to delve deeply into a song, to encounter it in the very fiber of her being, and look into the mirror to examine what truth it holds. Dark Chords on a Big Guitar is not simply a title; there are a lot of electric guitars here that provide atmospheric sounds and ambiguous, sensual textures on this record. While Baez is not a rock singer and doesn't try to be, this is a rock album. In the tension between the sonics and her voice on these tunes lies a breeding ground for the impossible to happen -- and it does, over and again: Baez uses that tension, the notion that desire and transcendence are two sides of the same coin, and rides it into the cracked heart of each of these fine tunes, shattering their surfaces and their artifice. She travels into the center, where each lyric holds its vulnerability, its culpability, and she revels there, bringing back meaning and truth from the murky, messy, wanton depths. Check out her reading of Henry's "King's Highway"; it finds ghostly traces of the Band in its ringing electric six strings and shuffling drums. Her version of Merchant's "Motherland" blows the original away. Her voice tears at the grain of the lyric, opening it enough for the listener to feel it in her marrow, its raw need, its profound nakedness, and the fiery spirit at its heart. Spector's production, which is reminiscent of Daniel Lanois', has more teeth; he seems to like jagged edges, and Baez thrives on them here. The album ends with her version of Earle's "Christmas in Washington." Somehow, this reading of the song means more than Earle's; it's as if he wrote it for her. As she invokes the ghosts of Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, and Malcolm X, she places the entire weight of those generations -- as instructed by them -- into her plea. It feels rightfully desperate, bewildered, and angry. It is a prayer echoed with purpose, pride, and the disbelief that such a plea would even be necessary in this day and age. Let's hope they hear it. Dark Chords on a Big Guitar proves that as an artist, Baez is still reaching, still restless, still resilient as leather, and possessed by the spirit of loving kindness; she is still wily and sexy, and still seeking a deeper, wider base to anchor her burning blue heart in the belly of her muse. On this record, Baez is poetically, musically, spiritually, and emotionally articulate; she voices with ease and conviction those scary, forbidden things everyone else feels in the dark night of their own souls.

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Product Details

Release Date:
Koch Records


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Album Credits

Performance Credits

Joan Baez   Primary Artist
Gail Ann Dorsey   Background Vocals
Duke McVinnie   Guitar,Electric Bass
Rani Arbo   Background Vocals
Doug Pettibone   Acoustic Guitar
George Javori   Drums
Byron Isaacs   Electric Bass,Acoustic Bass

Technical Credits

Greg Brown   Composer
Steve Earle   Composer
Joe Henry   Composer
Greg Calbi   Mastering
Natalie Merchant   Composer
Bo Ramsey   Producer
Mark Spector   Producer
Gillian Welch   Composer
Norman Moore   Art Direction
Tom Tucker   Engineer
David Rawlings   Composer
Ryan Adams   Composer
Caitlin Cary   Composer
Brandon Mason   Engineer
Josh Ritter   Composer

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Dark Chords on a Big Guitar 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Like other Dark Chords reviewers I feel that Joan Baez is choosing to use her voice in a particular way on this recording in a way that suits the music, the songs themselves and the times we are living in. It is a number of years since I heard Joan Baez sing live -1997, I think - when she sang "Matty Groves", from one of her earliest recordings in full soprano and faultlessly - all 22 verses! These songs on Dark Chords would not sound right sung in a high soprano voice: they are more earthy and I think Joan's treatment of them on this CD is no less than superb. To my ear this CD sounds as good - and at times as raw - as a live performance. It's true that Joan's voice is changing over time but she seems to be rising wonderfully to the challenge of a new style suggested by the songs themselves. I feel, too, that her singing voice is now much closer than before to her speaking voice which always has to my mind been much deeper than her "achingly pure soprano" when singing. Her current singing style has a contemporary edge to it, which is likely to get more people listening to her work and more radio playing than was maybe the case previously. People I have played the CD to are using words like "mellow" and comment how well the voice and the band blend on most tracks. I was pleased to see Dark Chord listed on some website under "Adult Contemporary". This recording seems to be leaning towards commercial values without compromising the integrity of Joan, the main performer, or her beliefs. Joan Baez is back on the music scene (though for her die-hard fans she has always been there.) All this just to say that I like this CD very much!!! Go on, treat yourself! Buy Dark Chords on a Big Guitar and revel in the quality of a lovingly put-together piece of music craft!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dark Chords on a Big Guitar was well worth the wait. I have been listening to Joan Baez for thiry years and I am always adding to my collection and this cd is played daily. I highly recommend this album.
Guest More than 1 year ago
With "Dark Chords on a Big Guitar", Joan Baez has graced us with a thought-provoking collection of songs that touches both the heart & soul. Reflecting the times in which we live, this is a dark album in both music and lyrics. But Joan's smile on the black & white cover photograph hints of the hope and happiness that still exist, which she proceeds to uncover through a series of 'song snapshots'. The album succeeds first and foremost due to Joan's voice & vision. Starting with "Play Me Backwards" (1992), and continuing with "Gone From Danger" (1997), Joan has honed her interpretative abilities. After 62 years of life, Joan's "lived in" voice serves as the perfect instrument for these brilliant songs. The angelic qualities of her younger voice have been replaced by a more Earthly warmth. Her range, in a sense, has gotten wider. She sings as if she has stepped into the shoes of these various personas and walked around for a while. The next positive factor here is due to the musicians. The album's intimate sound is provided mostly by members of Joan's touring band. This makes for an unusual, but winning situation. "Dark Chords on a Big Guitar" has the sound of a live album, but with studio recorded quality. The third ingredient in this superb mixture is the choice of songs. While there is not a dud among them, standouts include 2 Greg Brown songs: "Sleeper"; the tale of a former lover haunting our dreams, and "Rexroth's Daughter"; wherein what appears to be a search for an individual turns out to really be an exploration of the meaning of one's life. The literal & spiritual center of the album is provided by Natalie Merchant's "Motherland" and Josh Ritter's "Wings". Both of these poetic songs seem to have struck a chord in Joan, producing heartfelt renditions. We are all reminded here of the arms we have for hugging, and the "wings" we have for soaring above the fray. The album ends with Steve Earle's "Christmas in Washington", so timely (with the coming presidential election), and unfortunately also timeless, in its tale of hypocritical greedy politicians. The song's protagonist's story eerily mirrors Joan's own life's journey, and Joan gives it a knowing take. Another of the album's highlights is Ryan Adams' "In My Time of Need". This story song shares a universal truth: We all need, whether from a friend, family, or a companion, someone to be there for us in our time of need, and us for them. Ultimately, this album contributes to the soundtrack for that provided comfort. Take a listen, and let Joan's smile and singing "just off and carry you".
Guest More than 1 year ago
Thom Jurek's excellent review is good enough for me. I've always loved Joan Baez, and can't wait to hear this album. Unlike many other reviewers, Jurek really seems to know what he's talking about, and expresses it very clearly. Thank You !