Let’s be frank here. Tribute albums aren’t normally much cop. They rarely add much to the originals. Sometimes, though, there are writers who have been virtually lost in the cracks of history. Richard Farina is one such figure. His recorded ouevre ran to just two LPs with his wife Mimi (née Baez) before his untimely death in a motorbike accident in April 1966 aged just 29.
In terms of the number of published songs, there aren’t much more than a couple of dozen. But among them are some of the greatest of the era. There is a fine line between treating the songs with the respect they deserve and treating them as holy artefacts to be revered rather than interpreted. It’s a line that singer-songwriter Caroline Doctorow treads with the skill of a beam-balancing gymnast. The original recordings often had a fairly bare instrumentation of dulcimer and autoharp. Doctorow’s arrangements are much more expansive, but are never overly decorative. It leads to an album that sounds thoroughly modern, not like an archaeological project.
Doctorow’s voice has a pleasing country-ish lilt to it, like a less-accented Emmylou Harris. Multi-instrumentalist Pete Kennedy also deserves particular praise for the way that he subtly fills the spaces behind Doctorow’s voice and guitar. A few of these songs have been covered fairly extensively before. Kendra Smith did a good version of “Bold Marauder” some years ago (my first exposure to Farina’s work), but my favourite ever was Sandy Denny’s magical reading of “The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” on her Sandy album. It’s a song that seems as old as folk music itself. The version here isn’t quite as extraordinary as Denny’s, but still has that same slightly unsettling spiritual air and is one of the album’s highlights.
Other songs that shine in this setting include “Reno Nevada” with its Calexico-like Tex-Mex arrangement, the beautiful, chilling “Birmingham Sunday” and the glassy, cyclical “Reflections in a Crystal Wind”. “Another Country” is superb, too. It has a tune that will be familiar to Byrds’ fans since they lifted it wholesale for “Space Odyssey”.
There are a few guest turns (Nanci Griffith, John Sebastian and Happy Traum all make a couple of appearances), but Another Country is ultimately about the songs. The covers don’t necessarily trump the originals (although some are at least as good), but they show them in a new light. Ultimately, you need know nothing of Richard Farina to enjoy the album. The songs, and Caroline Doctorow’s sympathetic treatment of them, stand up for themselves. So, to go back to my opening statement: Every sweeping generalisation has its exceptions. Another Country is a small triumph on its own merits, and a hugely enjoyable listen.
1 Bold Marauder 4:37
2 Raven Girl 4:57
3 Children of Darkness 4:07
4 Reflections in a Crystal Wind 3:25
5 Sell-Out Agitation Waltz 3:05
6 Another Country 4:04
7 Hard-Lovin’ Loser 4:19
8 Birmingham Sunday 4:15
9 Reno Nevada 3:49
10 The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood 5:02
11 Morgan The Pirate 5:08
12 Mainline Prosperity Blues 6:22
13 Celebration for a Grey Day 0:31