A review of “Joan Baez, Vol. 2”

As the name suggests, Joan Baez’s album is a simple continuation of what she was doing on the first album: singing traditional folk songs accompanied by an acoustic guitar (well, actually I think there are a few more instruments here, like a banjo on “Pal of Mine”). Musically, it’s exactly the same. Her voice is just as wonderful. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the quality of the songs: it seems like Baez had already included all the most interesting songs she knew on the first album. In comparison, the songs on this album are somewhat forgettable and boring, and I’ve found it a lot harder to really listen to them. When I do listen to the songs with careful attention, I can find lots of positive things to say about them, but as a whole they simply don’t seem to be able to hold my interest as much as the songs on the first album. That said, there are some which stand out, like “Barbara Allen” and “Plaisir D’Amour”, and would have held their own among the songs on the debut.

The opening track, “Wagoner’s Lad”, exemplifies these problems. It’s sung a cappella, but it isn’t interesting enough for this to work. She sings it extremely well, as ever, but the song doesn’t give her an opportunity to really show her voice. The only thing it has going for it are the sort-of-feminist lyrics, which is probably the reason she put it at the start of the album, to get your attention. The next one, “The Trees They Do Grow High”, I find slightly amusing, although it’s probably not intentional. It’s about a girl who’s married to a boy who’s too young; she reassures herself that he’s “young, but daily growin'”. If you’re familiar with how these traditional songs usually go, you might be able to predict how it ends. Musically though, it’s not that interesting either.

“Lily of the West”, on the other hand, will grab your attention with its really fast, energetic guitar playing. Joan Baez reaches a really high pitch at some points in this though, to the extent that it can sound unpleasant. It’s an excellent song, but not done perfectly by Baez. In fact, I’ve never heard any version of this song I’m fully satisfied with. My personal favourite is actually Bob Dylan’s version, from his notoriously terrible 1973 album “Dylan”. But I don’t expect everyone to agree with that.

Somehow, on my first few listens to this album, I didn’t really notice “Silkie”. I don’t know how this could have happened, because it’s an absolutely beautiful, mysterious Orcadian ballad, and possibly the best thing on this album. The next three songs are more unremarkable. “Engine 143” is a train wreck song by the Carter Family. Since this is a country song, Joan Baez adopts the sort of nasal, quavering style typical of country singers, and she pulls it off pretty well, but this just isn’t that much of an interesting song. “Once I Knew a Pretty Girl” and “Lonesome Road” are standard folk songs. “Lonesome Road”, in particular, has a very nice, catchy melody.

Now, I think “Banks of the Ohio” is one of the best songs on this album, up there with “Silkie”. But Don Ignacio, the only other guy I can find who has reviewed this album on the Internet, thought it was so terrible he had a kind of textual fit of rage while listening to it. I can sort of understand where he’s coming from—it’s probably true that Baez and the backup singers who accompany her on this track are all singing off key, though I don’t know enough about singing to judge for myself. Even so, I don’t think it sounds bad. The thing is, if you listen to the lyrics, this is a very bleak, depressing song and the slight dissonance just accentuates that feeling, without making the song unlistenable.

“Pal of Mine” is another song sung in the country style. The backup singers from “Banks of the Ohio” are still here for this one, and now there are added banjos! It’s a nice country song, but nothing special. “Barbara Allen” comes next. This is one of the most famous traditional folk songs, and Joan Baez’s interpretation is one of the best. Her voice sounds really beautiful here. After this, there’s a Christmas carol! “The Cherry Tree Carol” is pleasant enough. “Old Blue” is a nice fun song about a dog, which sounds like it was fun for her to sing. “Railroad Boy”, in contrast, is a sad, serious folk song. I find all three of these songs a little boring, though.

Thankfully, the album finishes on a good note with “Plaisir D’Amour”. This isn’t actually a folk song, it’s a beautiful 18th-century French chanson written by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini. Some verses are in French, some in English, but the melody and the singing are extremely pretty. By the way, if the melody sounds familiar to you—that’s right, Elvis used the melody for “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”!

Like the rest of Joan Baez’s early albums, you can get a reissued version with three bonus tracks. These are worth getting, since they’re pretty good. If she’d replaced some of the more forgettable songs on the album with these tracks, I might like it better! “I Once Loved A Boy” is lovely; her voice is especially spellbinding on this one. “Poor Boy” is another good one. Note the last verse, with its slightly sinister lyrics. “Longest Train I Ever Saw” has a nice melody, but I don’t think it’s as good as the other two; her voice grates a little when it hits the high notes.

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