Dirty Linen Review Of Songbook

Issue #85 - December 1999 / January 2000

They just don’t make folk guitarist/singer/songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot anymore. Throughout his lengthy career, this Canadian icon has written a vast array of authentic, unpretentious songs that strike a chord in the hearts and minds of nearly everyone. What’s more, Lightfoot sings in a straightforward manner with a warm, understandable, and instantly recognizable voice. He maintained his status as a genuine folk troubadour even when his singles were successful on the popular music charts in the 1970s. Although his songs disappeared from the charts in the 1980s and 1990s, when his recorded albums were less popular and fewer and farther between than in the previous two decades, his lyrics remained as genuine, intelligent, and user-friendly as ever. Lightfoot’s concert tours continue to be well-attended. His material has been covered by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Fairport Convention, Bob Dylan, Olivia Newton-John, Jane’s Addiction, Sarah McLachlan, and countless others. This man’s career is deserving of a thorough, carefully planned, quality box set, and this chronologically arranged compilation fills the bill.

Songbook contains 88 songs covering the entire range of Lightfoot’s output, from his earliest recordings to the title track from his latest CD, A Painter Passing Through. The bulk of the project — three quarters of it — documents his time of major prominence, 1967-1981. CD one covers his years with United Artists Records (through 1969), and includes the only two forgettable cuts in the entire set: country-style singles from 1962. Lightfoot says they sound like “a cross between Jim Reeves and Pat Boone.” CDs two and three recount Lightfoot’s heyday from 1970 to 1981 on Reprise/Warner. The last disc spans the period from the 1982 LP Shadows to date, and although this could be called the “weakest” of the four CDs, the fault lies not in the songs but in the instrumental backing: the least effective material contains an overemphasis on synthesizers and drums. All the radio hits, such as “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” and “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” as well as classics such as “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” “Early Morning Rain,” and “For Lovin’ Me,” make their appearance on Songbook. Although long-time fans might wish a few more of their individual favorites would have been added, Songbook furnishes an excellent overview of the Lightfoot repertoire.

Interspersed throughout are 16 previously unreleased items from 1967 to 1986, and there’s lots of great music to digest and enjoy among them. “Message to the Wind” from 1967 is the earliest new cut, fits in well with his material from the period, and is a good love song with nice chord changes. 1972’s “Too Much to Lose,” a rolling, mid-tempo piece about leaving town done in the classic twin acoustic guitar/bass/drums style of that period, was originally written for the Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke but never used. “Borderstone” came along one year later and features prominent steel guitar from Pee Wee Charles on a composition about hopping a freight train. “Canary Yellow Canoe” (1981) is a fun-filled electric guitar rock ’n’ roll romp that puts Lightfoot in the same league as Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Lightfoot penned the love song “Never Say Trust Me” for Kenny Rogers in 1982, but the subtle, understated offering appears here for the first time. “Always on the Bright Side,” also from ’82, is a slow, serious love song with stripped-down instrumentation that makes the song feel like it belongs to the early 70s.

The packaging of the set is like Lightfoot’s work: solid, dependable, not too flashy, and a class act down to the last detail. There’s an extra-sturdy box with a photo of Lightfoot on the front and complete track listing on the back. Each disc is in its own jewel box with track listings and times on the back. The accompanying book is a 60-page hardcover tome with its pages glued and sewn-in. The book’s contents are impressive, with a detailed biography, a select discography, a track list with complete personnel and recording information, and comments about each song by Lightfoot himself, who, along with Thane Tierney, co-produced the project and chose which selections to include. All box sets should aim as high, and succeed as much as Songbook does.

Al Riess

©1999 Dirty Linen


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