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by Haven James
A labor of love long in coming hits the record racks this week with the Siren Songs release of Recovered by John Hall. Eleven choice cuts present a unique and personal retrospective of the bountiful writing career of John and Johanna Hall and spotlights John Hall, the guitarist, and John Hall, the vocalist, in a no-frills, straight-ahead, and bare-bones attack.
Many of the Halls' compositions have been covered and scored as major hits by what amounts to a Who's Who of modern music. Bonnie Raitt's Good Enough, Linda Rhonstadt's Give One Heart, the Tymes' Miss Grace, Orleans' Still the One and Dance With Me, and the pearl that started it all, Janis Joplin's Half Moon, are all Hall songs. This time they're recovered by Hall in a record co-produced by John and Robbie Dupree that's about the songs--not so much where they went and what they became, but where they came from and what they were like when they were born.
Between the John Hall Band, Orleans, and variations thereof, most of the Hall repertoire has been released on vinyl, acetate, and whatever those CDs are made of; but in most cases, the singing, playing, and final arrangements were very much a group phenomenon which influenced and, to some degree, altered the original intent. "The inflection, the interpretation that was involved in the demos, the first blush of the songs, were only heard by people who were in the room at the time," says John. "So this was an opportunity to revert to those, the versions before the arrangements, not only with Orleans but with Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, and the rest of the artists that did these songs. There were arrangements imposed [on] the songs that were sometimes just a little different, a little more elaborate than the way the songs started out. So, we stripped away a lot of that, the modulations, the backup vocal arrangements, the keyboards, the cymbals, the tom-tom fills; it's basically music minus three or four."
The title initially proposed for this record , Under the Covers, hints at what evolved to be a different approach to capturing the material as it was created. "This is the first record that I ever did where drums was the last track," Hall says. "It's usually the other way around. We'll get a great drum track and then we'll start adding things on." The way he approached it here was to get the keeper vocal and the keeper guitar track on every tune first, before they did anything instead of going into the studio intent on getting a killer track (meaning bass, drums, guitar, and keyboards) to use as a framework to build the songs on, as most bands do. Only later, somewhere toward the end of the process, is when the band would normally get to the vocals.
John points out the pitfalls in this approach. "First of all, the setting can sometimes get a little too overgrown to allow the vocals to shine," he says. "Secondly, there's a lot of pressure in the last few days of the project to finish the vocals, so with this thing we just thought... we'll get the keeper guitar track the thing's going to built around and the vocal right up front and then we won't be covering anything up; there won't be a tendency to say, or a temptation to say, Well, its OK if that note's a little off or it's not as strong as it should be there; we'll just put in some harmonies and cover it." The effort shows, and the approach left a lot more space for the lyric and the melodies to be heard. Keeping things simple also kept them articulate.
Often the hardest thing to do when you've been performing a song in a certain way for years is to try to get back to the original feeling of it. In some cases Hall went back and listened to early demo versions to analyze and recapture what made a tune special. "Some times when you write a song, when you're sitting there at the table with the guitar and a typewriter, or the pad and pencil going, the very first time the chorus comes out and you sing it there's a feeling there that is really magic," he reflects. "Then, the challenge is to hang on to that, to hang on to the magic as you refine the finishing of the tune itself."
Perhaps the best kept secret of the Hall songs is the lyricist, Johanna Hall. "You try to say something true about yourself and hope that it is true about somebody else as well," she says addressing the diversity of tunes included on Recovered which typifies the team's ability to transcend genres and effect successful cross-overs. "You hope you can say something with grace that people resonate to, and if you do that then maybe you can catch the brass ring."
Sometimes Johanna starts with a particular premise; sometimes she just grabs something out of the air. But whether speaking in the first person or musing on something that's pure fantasy, what remains consistent in her lyrics are real feelings.
In her liner notes, Johanna--a self proclaimed "memoirist"--tells the whole story of the duo's writing history, starting with their encounter with the one she calls St. Janis, an episode which kicked off their collaboration. Joplin liked John's songs but couldn't relate to singing the lyrics of an 18-year-old guy. She turned to Johanna and said, "You're a woman, you're a writer, write me a song." Soon rising on the charts was Half Moon. With Raitt and Rhondstadt, Chaka Khan, Millie Jackson, Carly Simon and many more subsequently cutting their songs, "It's obvious that there's a connection between woman vocalists and Johanna's lyrics," John observes.
Recovered is a snapshot of the Hall's career; though a partial representation of a major collection of works, it is yet a very valid one. Pop tunes, funky stuff, some reggae, and political-commentary folk are their stock and trade, and there is a bit of each on Recovered. The album speaks in their personal voices as well as their unified professional creative voice. John Hall's guitar work is stunning and holds many a revelation to the discriminating listener; it will suddenly be clear where some of those licks on albums from bands like Little Feat or John Simon or Jackson Browne came from. There is a lot of slide guitar on the record, too, both steel bar on John's classic '56 Fender Strat and bottleneck on an ancient National resonator.
As the CD is self-produced and promoted by Siren Songs, they've posted record order information at their web site at http://www.sirensongs.com. There's also a hot line number, 1-888-GET-HALL, and Recovered should be in the stores locally by now.
Recovered is a must for all John Hall/Orleans fans and holds a lot of good music the uninitiated will appreciate. "The music for us is not just a job, it's therapy," says John, adding, "I'm recovered, but not that recovered." And is there a message to that as well?
"Well, yes, there is."
Tuned-In Exclusive:   Conversations with Wolves
Whenever possible and wherever appropriate, we will post additional commentary and dialog concerning the artists covered by Werewolves of Woodstock. This week there was a lot more to our interview with John and Johanna Hall that was not possible to include in the column as it went to press. John spoke of his guitars and slide techniques and Johanna of further perspectives on writing and their career. What follows below are assorted excerpts from our conversations. Some appear with comment or introduction, some as free-standing gems:
Haven James has been a consistent contributor to the Music & Arts scene around the Hudson Valley and beyond for almost a decade through his column, Werewolves of Woodstock, published weekly in the Woodstock Times
A writer, musician, philanthropist, and Mac addict; he lives reclusively, high atop Overlook Mountain with his son and a menagerie of animals, both wild and domesticated. Though currently unmarried, rumors abound as to his intimate relationships with Madonna, Sandra Bernhardt, and Eli Bach; though he insists these notions to be pure hearsay. His identity has remained a mystery to all but the closest of friends as he often travels in disguise and appears unannounced and undercover at concerts and venues in a dedicated effort to get the real story.
Posted on March 7, 1998
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