Thursday, April 01, 2010

Harry Chapin - Heads & Tails (1972)

While not as well known or remembered as some of his contemporaries, Harry Chapin’s career thrived on a sizable and devoted cult following and the respect of many of his peers.

Despite not being as strong as many of his later albums, on his solo debut, Heads & Tails, Chapin shows glimpses of his talent as a singer/songwriter. Musically, the songs are quite an eclectic mix. As would be the trend on future Chapin compositions, the cello (played on this album by Tim Scott) is a cornerstone of his folk-rock sound on every track. The album also features Chapin’s longtime bass-player/background vocalist, John Wallace (he continued touring with Harry right up to Harry’s last show).

The trouble with the album is that it’s rather “bottom heavy” that is to say on the LP side 2 was considerably stronger than side 1 (or on the CD, Tracks six through nine were stronger than tracks one through five).

The second side starts with Taxi, easily one of the best songs Harry ever wrote or recorded—so popular amongst his die-hard fans that it yielded Sequel in 1980 that picks up several years after Taxi leaves off. As much as I enjoy Taxi, I’d argue that the live versions I’ve heard are superior to this original studio version. Where Harry’s voice is somewhat youthful and innocent on the studio version, there’s a grizzled world weariness to his vocals on the various live recordings I’ve heard of the song that gives the song a bit more emotional weight. An interesting footnote to Taxi, the movie Taxi Driver was supposedly a cross between Taxi and Sniper which appeared on Harry’s 2nd album, Sniper and Other Love Songs.

Dogtown is the #2 of a 1-2 punch on side two. It’s another glimpse at the storyteller style of songs that Harry first exhibited with Taxi and would become increasingly more prevalent on Harry’s subsequent albums. It’s the tale of a town of fishermen’s wives in Massachusetts. With their husbands out to sea so much they all have guard dogs to keep them safe in their husband’s absences. The song relates their hard lives even mentioning one widow who had already buried 3 husbands who had drowned. The song also features the wives of these fishermen asking, “Am I his widow or his wife.” and asking if they’ll have to give their husbands to the sea or the sky. The emotional intensity is undeniable and Harry’s delivery is considerably stronger and more intense than on Taxi.

The album closes with the haunting autobiographical Same Sad Singer. The song is spare and yearning but the lyrics lack the punch of songs like Taxi and Dogtown. Harry does make up for the weak lyrics (weak in comparison to Taxi and Dogtown) with a strong vocal delivery. The sorrow and loneliness drips from each tender note he sings.

While Harry would come to perform stronger material on later albums, his debut made for a respectable start and a glimpse of the better material that he’d release as his career matured and progressed. For the casual listener, it’s generally a “pass”, but for the more die-hard fan and those who are interested in hearing his musical evolution it’s an excellent place to start one’s musical journey.  Feels like ** 1/2 (out of *****)

Related Video and Links

Harry Chapin (official site)
Harry Chapin (wikipedia)


Charlie said...

You're right, this LP wasn't his best one but a 2 or 3 star Harry album is still better than much of the shallow muck out there.

Harry was one star who always put his money where his mouth was. His fight against world hunger was definitely genuine.

In addition, even if the song wasn't his best it still was full of integrity. He never recorded a song just for the money. I'm not so naive enough to think he wanted to be a starving artist (he had a wife and several kids after all) but he was clearly a case of what you see is what you get.

Sean Coleman said...

Greatest Stories Live was on my turntable last week. Hadn't played it in at least two years. An old buddy of mine always plays Taxi when we get the guitars out and have a few beers.

Chapin was a top drawer song writer.

Cleveland Jeff said...

Almost forgot Chapin. Thanks for the review.

Perplexio said...

Charlie: I'd have to agree with you about a 2-3 star Chapin album still being better than most other material out there. The 2 1/2 star rating I gave this was in the context of Harry's other material, not in the context of other artists.

Sean: My sis and bro-in-law had a CD player as early as the mid-80s (around '87 or so) and one of the first CDs she had for it was Greatest Stories Live thus my first exposure to Harry Chapin was that album. It left me hungry for more. I love his live albums because he often tells the stories behind the songs before he starts playing them. Harry was basically doing VH1 Storytellers at all his live shows long before VH1 even existed.

Cleveland Jeff: Glad you enjoyed the reminder. Harry isn't as well remembered as many of his singer/songwriter peers. It's a shame as he was very talented and far too overlooked.