Monday, September 27, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 75 - Donovan

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

In the 1960s Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back, there's a section of the film where Dylan and his "cats" hangs with Donovan and his gang. There are two scenes in particular worth watching. In the first, Dylan (possibly drunk) starts bitching and screaming about how someone threw a glass, and Donovan attempts to calm him down. It's a strange scene, and while Dylan comes across as a bit of a showboat, it's clear that his personality completely mows down that of the relatively passive Donovan's.

In the second scene (below), Donovan plays a quiet folk song, "To Sing For You," on a guitar. Dylan requests the guitar be passed to him, and immediately launches into "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Both performances are fine, but Dylan's is far more electrifying, and the camera clearly captures Donovan's somewhat jealous expression as his young rival draws all eyes in the room to him. 

The scene speaks a lot about folk music in the 1960s. Whereas Dylan's music was constantly pushing forward through those a-changin' times, Donovan's music often looks back to an idyllic past. Donovan's reputation has not necessarily been preserved in recent years - his hippie-ish, quasi-troubadour personality is far too goofy to our modern hipster sensibilities, and Dylan's air of refined apathy seems much more interesting. 

But Donovan's music represents a very real strain of psychadelia and folk rock from the time. Despite their inherent silliness, I'm relatively sympathetic to songs about fairies and mythical times of yore, but even I was tested by some of Donovan's music this week. He's no Dylan (one acerbic Youtube commenter referred to Donovan as the Salieri to Dylan's Mozart). But I think that Donovan's music can be interesting for what it is - amid the attempts at hippie transcendentalism, there's real beauty to be found in some of his stuff, and even some progressive elements in his pop songs. He's no Dylan, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. 



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I had heard the song "Mellow Yellow" on the radio a few times as a kid, but I only decided to concentrate on Donovan recently when I heard the song "Hurdy Gurdy Man" during the credits of the movie Zod.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Sunshine Superman (1966) every day this week. I also listened to A Gift From a Flower to a Garden (1967) three times, and Mellow Yellow (1967) once.


To appreciate Donovan at all, you really have to be willing to accept the hippie mentality that comes with his music. I managed to swallow that after the first day - I have a soft spot for medieval-sounding songs about "Royal Camelot" even if they're somewhat corny and overly sincere. 

Once you get beyond that, there are two central strains in Donovan's work that I liked a lot. The first was blues-influenced pop songs. A lot of these songs are intricately orchestrated, and moved along by a surprisingly jazzy bass riff. "Season of the Witch" is perhaps the best song that Donovan ever did, starting with a simple blues riff and building in intensity. But "Bert's Blues," while perhaps not as well-written, is far more thrilling, starting with the standard blues-riff and adding an Eleanor-Rigby-style string accompaniment before ending in a free-for-all jazz ensemble. And while "Mellow Yellow" may or may not be about a neon yellow vibrator, it too has the smooth, almost funky beat, the weird orchestration, and the blues-tinged-psychedelic-but-almost-carefree pop mentality. It's a weird combination, but when it comes together it works very well. 

The second fun strain in Donovan's work are his acoustic folk songs, which really do sound like the anthems of medieval troubadors. Again, you have to swallow the chivalric imagery, but once you do, songs like "Guinevere" can be hauntingly beautiful. "Three King Fishers" combines these modal folk songs with the sitar in a track that's incredibly dated but still fun. The second half of A Gift from a Flower to a Garden is entirely acoustic folk, leading to gems like "The Lullaby of Spring" and "The Magpie." These sorts of songs are beautiful and surprisingly moving; Donovan knows how to play his cards right to take what could be a weird song about a hippie's dream of pastoral times gone by, and turn it into an affective, albeit dated, folk ballad. 


I've made excuses for the hippie-ish stuff up to this point, but sometimes it gets to be far too much. In terms of his folk music, "Legend of the Child Linda" is the most self-indulgent track on the otherwise enjoyable Sunshine Superman - nearly seven minutes of a slow, plodding folk ballad about a magical princess or some crap like that. Even the somewhat interesting string and wind orchestration can't save this snoozer. 

Then we have the entire first side of the double album A Gift From A Flower to a Garden. The first half of this album is psychedelic pop, the second folk acoustic. The first half is a downright chore to get through, as it gets weirder and weirder without any of Donovan's good melodies to redeem it. "Little Boy in Corduroy" is one of the worst offenders, with its trippy sing-a-long chorus, but "Skip-A-Long Sam" and "Mad John's Escape" are similar tracks that are just a little too psychedelic for my tastes. It sounds dated, and it sounds like it's trying too hard. Donovan got me to appreciate a little bit of trippiness in my pop songs this week, but my good will only goes so far. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Other albums from the heyday of Donovan's career include The Hurdy-Gurdy Man (1968) and Barabajagal (1969). But I'm sort of strangely drawn to the gritty Rick Rubin-produced comeback album Sutras (1996). It was an attempt to be a Johnny Cash-style return to form, and apparently it was a huge mess. 

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "The Hurdy-Gurdy Man"

I'm going to assume you've heard this song because it gets featured in movies a lot. I think it represents the best of Donovan's psychedelic side - and it has two members from Led Zeppelin playing in the backing band!

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Season of the Witch"

This seems to be one of his most acclaimed singles, but since I hadn't heard it before this week, I'm going to assume you haven't either. Unlike "The Hurdy-Gurdy Man," "Season of the Witch" best represents Donovan's cool bluesy side. 

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: The National. I'm already somewhat familiar with them, but I'm seeing them in concert next Sunday, so it will be a good way to finish off the week.