After a few months and countless spins on both my ipod and my truck’s CD (yes, Compact Disc) player, my most lasting thought on Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine is stated in the title itself. These songs are John Prine’s.
It is an obvious but important point to note. The album is a marriage of an older folk music and the newer “Indie”-labelled folk, of an idiosyncratic and long under-appreciated artist and a new generation that reveres him. With deep respect for both the old and the new, my desire for this album to boil over with greatness was overwhelming. However, it settles for just a few moments of greatness and otherwise relies on the stellar concept and the strength of the lyrics. For better or for worse, Prine’s songs are the breadwinner in the marriage.
Starting the album, Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) version of “Bruised Orange” is a perfect bridge between generations and an excellent example for those wondering about present and future stylings in folk music. It can be hard to navigate the terrain that is Vernon’s cold, ominous sound and the warm-blooded, reflective lyrics of Prine. However, as Vernon has proved with Bon Iver, his distinct sound and the connection to the lyrics are never far apart. Vernon’s layered vocals allows for both a detached coldness and a deeper warmth.
It is a testament to the current Indie-Folk/Roots/Americana scene—call it what you will—that the heavy-hitters right now are the ones who really push the concept of this album along. The Avett Brothers romp it up on “Spanish Pipedream”, a song that should romp. More than any other artist on the album the Avetts tap into the fun side of Prine, winking at him while delivering the sound that they do best. They succeed where Drive-By Truckers completely fail with “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin.” It is an obvious attempt at making a raucous barroom version of the song, but it ends up sounding like a poor man’s Brian Setzer yawning through a Christmas cover that has nothing to do with Christmas.
Josh Ritter is perfectly subdued and introspective with “Mexican Home” and proves himself to understand his role with that song. Old Crow Medicine Show submits one of the truest versions of “Angel from Montgomery”, one that stays right in the wheelhouse of Prine’s original. Both songs are safe plays but notable performances from notable Indie-folk artists.
Lambchop’s “Six O’Clock News” has more and more lift with each listen, and it is truly the most daring song on the album. It rewards scrutiny because once you figure out what the song is aiming for you know it hit it. The musical risks are daring and applause-worthy, especially when compared to the contributions of Justin Townes Earle and Sara Watkins (“The Late John Garfield Blues”). Earle’s “Far From Me” is appropriate in title only, as he seems far removed from everything he is doing.
For all the safe plays, there are obvious successes and more obvious failures. Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (Yim Yames) shared the bill recently in their supergroup Monsters of Folk, but they are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum on this album. Oberst’s “Wedding Day in Funeralville” is not the worst song on the album, but it may be the most disappointing. For all that Oberst is in this new Indie scene he seems both strained in his vocals and restrained in his connection to the lyrics. It’s even more glaring an ear-sore because it is sandwiched between the two most successful songs on the album, the aforementioned “Bruised Orange” and My Morning Jacket’s version of “All the Best.”
“All the Best” is the pinnacle moment of greatness and Yim Yames proves yet again to be a progressive leader and selfless collaborator within the scene. Their version of Prine’s song is redemptive and makes it easy to forgive the faults of the album. It is a perfect union of country steel guitars and spacey progressive rock. It never strays from Prine’s original tone but manages to sound like a completely different song. It is not the only success on the album but it embodies the high hopes of this project more than any other. It is the natural extension of Prine’s influence on American music.