Elsewhere/Wayback Review(s): John Denver’s Greatest Hits 1967 — 1973, Back Home Again and Rhymes & Reasons

While this is a review I penned back in 2005, you can read the newly re-issued review RIGHT HERE at Green Man Review!

Admit it. John Denver soothes. You know it; I know it. Songs like “Calypso” and “Rocky Mountain High” don’t just draw you in, they paint a picture of brighter places and quieter times. And I’m not just saying that because I grew up listening to him sing with Muppets. For me, John Denver carved out a niche between Ziggy Stardust and The Ramones, and I was happy to have his calm, gentle voice brighten my summer vacations and guide me through the changing face of rock during the seventies and early eighties. Even when it was cool to dismiss soft rock, I just couldn’t bring myself to turn away from his music. Now, RCA/Legacy has reissued three of John’s earlier albums, stripping them down to their bare essence. And with a few brief exceptions, the CDs are all the better for it.

With these reissues, the question isn’t what are you going to hear, but how are you going to hear it. The answer? Like he’s sitting in the room with you. The songs are shockingly clear, with the accompanying musicians and background singers even more distinctive, but never overpowering. These remasters let me hear instruments and harmonies I’d never heard before, bringing new life to old standards. This new clarity also lets the emotion in John’s voice come through. Do I miss the snap-crackle-pop of my old LP’s? Sure, but when I’ve gained this much, I don’t mind. They even throw in a few bonus tracks on each of the discs, but only two or three apiece. Yes, CDs hold more music than albums, but it’s nice to see that some companies know the difference between throwing in a few rarities and stuffing discs with needless tunes just because they can.

Rhymes & Reasons is John Denver’s first album, and it’s a time capsule of life in 1969. The album includes a Beatles cover (“When I’m Sixty-Four”) and a civil rights tune (Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”). It also includes a version of “Leaving, On A Jet Plane,” written by John but made popular by Peter, Paul and Mary. This version is less a plaintive lament in his hands than a simple but powerful statement of love and regret. Sorry PP&M, but I prefer this one.

This album stumbles a bit when John tries his hand at political satire. “The Ballad of Spiro Agnew,” a song that peters out just two lines in (after the singer promises to sing about “all the things he’s done”), was probably hilarious back in 1969, but now feels like nothing more than a hiccup that pulls you out of the enjoyment of the “real” songs (if only for a moment). “The Ballad of Richard Nixon” is three seconds of silence; again, cute in a historical context, but a bumpy segue from the somewhat forced hilarity of “When I’m Sixty Four” to the message piece that is the title track. The gem of this album is “You Dun Stomped My Heart,” which is a better fit to John Denver’s comedic sensibilities than “Sixty-Four,” and he sounds more at ease, probably because country music suits him, even when it’s a parody. You can almost see him smiling as he sings.

The bonus tracks on this album, “Rusty Green” and “Take Me To Tomorrow,” help even out the second half of the CD, pulling the disc’s overall feel away from a haphazard collection of tunes into more of an eclectic group of songs that become more polished as the CD continues. “Take Me” proves that John Denver can swing with the groovy cats, but I would rather they left off the post-singing chitchat; it may work in some instances (like The Beach Boy’s constant patter on “Barbara Ann”), but it isn’t needed here.

Greatest Hits 1969 — 1973 is his first greatest hits collection, and it includes “(Take Me Home) Country Roads” and “Rocky Mountain High;” standards I’ve always loved but thought of as my Top 40 weaknesses, have an edgier, folksier sound thanks to the master recording cleanup. “Sunshine On My Shoulder” has a new bittersweet plaintiveness that I either missed or just didn’t hear when it was prime radio fodder. “Leaving, On A Jet Plane” is redone here, but it loses a bit of the simple pleasure of its first release. Polishing popular tunes is understandable, but in this case it’s unnecessary. “Rhymes & Reasons” fares better, maybe because on this disc it finds its home among similar pieces. As the title track of his first album, it feels like another not-quite realized hippie anthem. Here, it fits in with the other nature-based songs, forming a tighter overall album.

Two of the three extra songs on this CD come from earlier albums, the other one, “Daydream,” feels a little like a seventies musical showstopper piece. Starting off slow, then gradually building to a crescendo, I would have liked to have had this piece be the final song, since it has such a great finish to it. Back Home Again is closer to the natural-high brand of music John Denver is most widely known for; let’s face it, he’s best when he’s praising the simple joys of living. Although this album originally came out four months earlier than Greatest Hits, the best known songs on this album, like “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” don’t make a re-appearance until his second greatest hits album. And then there’s “Annie’s Song” (which I’ve always called “You Fill Up My Senses” for some reason, no matter how often I’m told the correct title) — ah, everyone has a “perfect love” song tucked away somewhere. This one’s mine. This is the song that made me start to see what adults saw in each other, and why my friend’s mom would laugh whenever I said boys were gross. The message is even more clear, now. No orchestra, just a handful of musicians and John’s voice, with all the power of his love for Annie behind it. Makes me sigh, even now. Good stuff.

This disc’s bonus tracks include an alternate take of “Matthew” and “This Old Guitar.” This version of “Matthew” has more banjo and a crisper, clearer sound than the album version. “Guitar” has a better overall feel, and has a feel similar to “Annie’s Song.” This vocal track is a bit harsh, which is probably why they went with the version they did on the original album. These alternate takes are more of a joy to listen to, even though they’re not as polished as the album versions. My biggest beef? That the other two greatest hits recordings didn’t get similar treatment. “Calypso” and “Some Days are Diamonds” are two of my favorite John Denver songs, and after hearing some of his most popular standards polished shiny and new, I’d love to hear these songs, too.

On the whole, Greatest Hits and Back Home Again can be plunked down and enjoyed whole. Rhymes & Reasons is better in its second half, but a few of the CD’s earlier songs can be enjoyed simply for their departures from the standard John Denver oeuvre. Except for “Leaving, On A Jet Plane,” the truly wonderful songs on this CD are done better on Greatest Hits, but that’s to be expected from an artists’ first recording.

John Denver was often overlooked as a singer-songwriter of merit; with James Taylor, Carole King and Joni Mitchell, it’s easy to see where he’d get lost in the early-seventies shuffle. But he managed to carve out his own niche and establish himself, and though he died in a tragic accident in 1997, his legacy lives on through his songs. Named Colorado’s Poet Laureate in 1974, John Denver has often been painted by music snobs as a songwriter first, and a singer a pale second. Hopefully these remasters will change that.

 

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