Sunday, May 23, 2010

Harry Chapin - Portrait Gallery (1975)

Starting with 1974's Short Stories and right up until his untimely passing in 1981, Harry Chapin released a series of consistently brilliant albums.  Portrait Gallery was one of the best of his best albums.  The quality of the material is considerably more consistent than on Verities & Balderdash

Opening with the whimsical yet cynical Dreams Go By.  The clarinet and the whistling provide a backbone of whimsy to the relatively cynical lyrics that tell the story of a couple who grow up together sharing their dreams but keep putting off their dreams when life gets in the way.  The song ends with a gentle but regretful, "But I guess our dreams have come and gone, you're s'posed to dream when you are young." 

The album then shifts to Tangled Up Puppet, which makes for a unqiue companion piece to Cats in the Cradle from the previous album.  This time, instead of missing his son growing up and becoming a man a father laments as his daughter grows less and less a part of his life and becomes increasingly more her own woman.  As a father of a little girl this song packs a wallop every time I listen to it-- "I'm a tangled up puppet, all tangled up in knots, and the more I see what used to be, the less of you I've got." The message, as with Cats in the Cradle is clear, treasure and make the most of the time you have with your children as that time doesn't last.

Star Tripper while one of Harry's weaker songs, lyrically, from a musically perspective is one of Harry's more hauntingly beautiful compositions.  There's a somber melancholy vibe that drips from every note.  The song shows the less glamorous side of the life of the astronaut.  Given that the NASA was in a bit of a lull at the time, it could be argued that the song is also metaphor of the space program in general and the general apathy the public was starting to display towards the space program.

Babysitter had the potential to be a huge misstep, but Harry manages to turn what could have been a sophomoric locker room tale into a poignant coming of age story.  As a young man laments that, "I was much too late to be the first to make you a woman, but you were the one to make my mother's son a man."  The song delves into the beauty of the experience of first love and the impact that first love had on the rest of the man's life, long after the experience had ended.

Harry delves into his back catalog for Someone Keeps Calling My Name.  The song initially appeared on a then (and now) long out of print and largely ignored album that Harry and his brothers recorded as The Chapin Brothers in 1966.  The original version was later re-released on Harry's 3CD box set, Story of a Life.  The original and considerably shorter version was in the tradition of the Kingston Trio and other folk acts of the mid-60s featuring Harry, Steve, and Tom Chapin harmonizing and trading vocals.  Harry dusted off the song and added several verses stretching the song from just under three minutes upt to six and a half minutes.  The vocal harmonies with his brothers are replaced on the newer version with a group of women echoing as Harry sings the chorus.  The verses Harry adds tell the stories of Jenny who is "four fingers old," Jason is "ten birthday's old", Jonathan at "fifty seasons old", and Jamie who at "15 years has been too young,"

The Rock is one of Harry's finest story-telling gems.  It's an instantly catchy Chicken Little-esque tale about a young man who warns his townspeople that the large rock that leans over his town is about to fall.    The townspeople are dismissive of his claims as the rock has always been there and as far as they were concerned it always would be.  Without help, he decides to take matters into his own hands and figure out ways to stop the rock-- "he ran under with one last hope that he could add a prop, and as he disappeared the rock came to a stop, the people ran into the street, but by then all was still, the rock seemed where it always was or where it always will be, when someone asks where he had gone they said 'ah he was daft, who cares about that crazy fool?' then they'd start to laugh." 

Sandy is a song Harry wrote for his wife, the same wife he detailed in his I Wanna Learn a Love Song on his previous album.  Of the two songs, I Wanna Learn a Love Song is imminently more enjoyable.

Dirt Gets Under the Fingernails is an O. Henry-esque story of irony about a mechanic and his wife with aspirations of being a painter.  The payoff at the end is thoroughly enjoyable.  Musically the song is a bit dated but it works but the lyrics make up for it.

Harry brings the epic back to his albums with Bummer, at just shy of ten minutes it's his longest piece since Sniper and A Better Place to Be from 1972's Sniper and Other Love Songs.  It tells the tale of a man who grew up abused and on the wrong side of the law yet he somehow manages to earn a Medal of Honor and a handful of Purple Hearts in Vietnam.  Upon his return he falls back into his old habits and comes to a bad end.  When his body is retrieved they find him clutching onto his Medal of Honor and a smile on his face.  The song features a rather dated 70s horn chart and string arrangement giving the song a similar epic over the top anthemic vibe reminiscent of Sniper.

The album closes with the somewhat more upbeat and tongue in cheek blues tinged Stop Singing These Sad Songs creating a nice bookend for Dreams Go By which opened the album.  Much like Harry's live favorite, Circle, this album come full circle ending on a similar upbeat fun vibe to that which it began.

Portrait Gallery was Harry's strongest album to that point and arguably none of his other studio albums, save for 1977's dual LP Danceband on the Titanic, would quite equal the quality of this album.

Related Links and Media
Harry Chapin (official site)
Harry Chapin (wikipedia)


Charlie said...

"Dreams Go By" is my favorite song by Harry. It also opens Greatest Stories Live. Nobody could tell a story like He did, nobody.

Barbara said...

Great review. Put me in the mood for some of his music. Thanks :)