Thursday, April 29, 2010

Forgotten Music Thursday: Harry Chapin - Short Stories (1974)

Short Stories was the next step in Harry Chapin's musical evolution.  After finding his footing with Heads & Tails and Sniper and Other Love Songs Harry comes across considerably more self-assured and comfortable in his shoes on Short Stories.  While Short Stories lacks the epic seven to eleven minute tracks like Dogtown, Sniper, and A Better Place to Be from his first two albums Harry manages to say less with more.

W.O.L.D. tells the tale of an aging DJ constantly seeking happiness at his next stop on the radio dial only to one day find his life, looks, and youth have passed him by.  The song was inspired by Boston DJ, Jim Connors who was instrumental in Harry's early success.  Chapin overheard a phone conversation Connors had with his ex-wife that sparked a deep discussion between Chapin & Connors and that conversation was the inspiration for this song.  The song is told through a phone conversation a DJ is having with his ex-wife, although you only ever hear his half of the conversation. 

Harry hits another homerun with Mr. Tanner which tells the tale of a humble man in Dayton Ohio who runs a dry-cleaning business and has a talent for singing in local plays and shows.  After increased pressure from his friends and neighbours he uses up all of his savings to book a concert hall in New York City to audition.  Being crushed after receiving some rather unkind reviews, Mr. Tanner returns to Dayton where he never sings again, "excepting very late at night when the shop was dark and closed, he sang softly to himself as he sorted through the clothes."  What drives the song home are the haunting background vocals of bass player, John Wallace as he sings O Holy Night.  According to interviews this song was inspired by a couple of rather harsh reviews Harry read in the New York Times-- Harry actually quotes segments of both reviews in the song.

As good as all of the tracks are, of all the tracks on the album it is really buoyed even further by the aforementioned tracks and by the achingly beautiful Mail Order Annie.  A sad tale of two lonely less than attractive people who, through unusual circumstances end up fighting that loneliness together-- a similar theme to what Harry tackled on the previous album with A Better Place to Be.

Once Harry found his voice, his comfort level and gained a bit of self-confidence as an artist his albums were elevated to another level.  Short Stories is the first in a series of several Chapin albums that truly showed Harry at his creative peak, a peak he rode through the rest of the seventies and up to his untimely passing in 1981.  Honestly, from this album on, there's not a weak one in Harry's entire catalog.

Related Media & Links
W.O.L.D. video

Mr. Tanner video

They Call Her Easy video

Mail Order Annie video

Harry Chapin (official site)
Harry Chapin (wikipedia)


pattinase (abbott) said...

I loved Harry Chapin. Truly died too young by decades.

Scott Parker said...

Honestly, I know the voice and the one, famous song, "Cat's in the Cradle." I like folk/storytelling singers and the songs you posted made me more interested in hearing some more tunes. "Mr. Tanner" is excellent and I agree with you that the bass player singing makes this song. Read the Wikipedia entry. Death by car crash. Yikes.

Perplexio said...

pattinase: I "discovered" Harry when visiting my sister at her home in Rochester, NY when I was a young teen. She had his Greatest Stories Live on CD and at that point, Cats in the Cradle was the only of his songs I was familiar with. That CD left me hungry for more. He's one of my favorite songwriters. Once I became familiar with more of his material, I'd argue that Cats in the Cradle as brilliant as it is, isn't even one of his better songs.

Scott: I'm actually going through Harry's entire repertoire and reviewing all of his albums in chronological order. I've already reviewed Heads & Tails and Sniper & Other Love Songs and I'm currently working on the review for Verities and Balderdash (which is the album with Cats in the Cradle incidentally). I included YouTube clips with the other reviews as well if you're interested in sampling more of Harry's work before purchasing any of it.

Sean Coleman said...

Great stuff. That recording that you generously steered my way is excellent, as is the review.

Paul D. Brazill said...

I used to work in a second hand record shop and HC's records were always there. I've never checked him out but I will now.

Charlie said...

This is one of the outstanding entries in Harry's catalog. You're right on about how good it is. However, I'm not quite sure I considered it forgotten. Then again, there's a whole younger generation out there who know nothing about Harry except for "Cats In The Cradle." So, maybe you're right.

Perplexio said...

Sean - Glad you enjoyed the bootleg and this review.

Paul - Harry is well worth checking out. If you're new to Harry, I recommend starting with his Greatest Stories Live album. That's the one that got me hooked initially.

Charlie - I'd argue that other than Cats In the Cradle, Harry has been largely forgotten by all but those who are/were already familiar with the true depth and breadth of his talents.

Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

Like a lot of folks, I mostly know Harry Chapin's career for "Cat's In The Cradle." Actually, I kind of remember hearing "WOLD" when it was a hit.

And, as someone else noted, I've often seen his albums in the bins of used record stores. I'm certainly inclined to give them a home.

It's a shame how young he died (I remember seeing it on the news at the time). He seems like he was a good guy.

Voice of Doom and Gloom said...

His best album, in my humble opinion. I really like his live album too (I'm truly partial to live albums over studio - but that's just me). I can't recall the name. It's here in the house somewhere but I'm too lazy right now to go look for it.