People Take Warning! (Music Review)

People Take Warning! cover

Various Artists – People Take Warning!

People Take Warning! is a three-disc set of songs from the 1920s and 1930s that all commemorate disasters. Its seventy tracks include some classics (such as Charlie Patton’s “High Water Everywhere”), but also a lot with unprepared backup singers and lyrics that don’t fit the meter. The liner notes explain that this is because some of the songs were quickly rushed out to capitalize on a tragedy while it was fresh in everyone’s mind. Unfortunately, this collection feels just as slipshod, and has no excuse about timeliness.

Most importantly, the recording quality is consistently poor. Flat, washed-out, and full of a record player’s static, most of them sound like the transfer to CD was done by just setting up a microphone ten feet from a turntable. It doesn’t seem like the creators searched very widely for material, either, with many artists represented repeatedly. Ernest Stoneman and Charlie Patton each have four tracks here, with Patton’s all on the same disc.

The material deserved better. The songs are an interesting snapshot of the concerns and fascinations of a lost time: The first disc is devoted to accidents on man-made devices, including the expected train crashes. But it also features seven songs about The Titanic, a common theme that has since been forgotten. (Until buying Dylan’s epic “Tempest” last year, I don’t think my collection had any Titanic songs.) The second disc, “Man V. Nature”, is full of floods and boll weevils, but also has a couple fires of the scope we don’t see today. Those tragedies have the same fascinating immediacy as murder ballads, which unsurprisingly are the focus of the final disc. Those are the best songs; There’s a reason murder songs remain more popular than the other themes. (The recording quality is also better here. Perhaps the producers had a better selection to pick from, or maybe it’s just easier to find well-preserved copies of these songs.) Even so, if you’re in this release’s target audience, you already have better renditions of “Stack O’ Lee”, “Pretty Polly”, and several others.

The liner notes include a decent, if short, essay by Tom Waits about the role of disaster songs in the culture. The rest of the booklet provides several interesting tidbits of information, but still feels as maddeningly rushed as the rest of the production. For example, it wouldn’t take much research to correct the assertion that we don’t know if “Frankie & Johnny” was a true story or not. Even the track listing is incredibly different between the CD case and the booklet. One song is alternately called “The Titanic” and “The Sinking of The Titanic”, while another is both “Mississippi Boweavil” and “Boll Weevil Blues”. Many backup artists are credited in only one of the locations , and neither source can consistently decide between “Alfred Reed” an “Blind Alfred Reed” (yet they disagree with each other in all three of his appearances). It doesn’t seem that much effort went into this at all.

People Take Warning! is a collection that I really wanted to like. Its compelling theme and ambitious scope are exactly what the project should have. However, the quality and attention to detail are lacking throughout.

Grade: C-

 
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  1. Interesting… Thanks for posting!

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