Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Zanes & Mitchell Turn Turn Turn Back to Folk Roots

WYSIWYG is a common software term that means "What You See Is What You Get." It is also directly applicable to the malleable recordings of Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell. Over the past decade, Dan has almost deconstructed the sound of "Dan Zanes and Friends." Whereas his early recordings like ROCKET SHIP BEACH have a kindie garage band sound, his more recent mission seems to be reacquainting audiences with the folk traditions of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Similarly, Mitchell and You Are My Flower (her family band) recently released THE SOUNDING JOY, an entire CD from the songbook of Ruth Crawford Seeger.

Zanes and Mitchell have a long association. In fact, my brother once asked me, "Are they married?" to which I replied, "Only to their music." We've seen them perform separately and together on numerous occasions and look forward to every appearance. Now they have co-released TURN TURN TURN, which further deepens their exploration of folk music and its importance to American families.

In past reviews, I've talked about how the word "Traditional" sends a chill down my spine, when presented in an unexpected manner (nobody needs disco-fied "Itsy Bitsy Spider"). But in the capable hands of Danes & Mitchell, you get the Depression era classic "When You're Smiling," most famously sung by Louis Armstrong, alongside the title track, a Seeger staple adapted almost entirely from verses in the Book of Ecclesiastes, set to music. The tune reached #1 on the American charts in 1965 when recorded by the Byrds.

The mood is so firmly set that Zanes' original tunes "Now Let's Dance" and "In the Sun" fade completely into the folk firmament, as if being rediscovered by Doc Pomus. Only "Coney Island Avenue" takes the folk spirit for a subway ride to Brooklyn:

We've got our sandwiches, we've got our crew
We're walking down Coney Island Avenue
We're counting all the barbershops, 1, 2, 3
And all the little markets, A, B, C
We'll walk walk walk until we get to the sea.

If you're looking for another HOUSE PARTY-esque CD from Dan Zanes, turn turn turn away. The music does not stray far from Mitchell's sweet spot – family folk songs. Zanes has also strummed himself a comfortable groove in that genre. Song titles like "Train Is A'Coming" and "Raccoon and Possum" further the WYSIWYG sentiment.

Zanes and Mitchell have legions of followers who will gladly round out their collections with TURN TURN TURN. As I've always said about roots music, you can lead your kids to folk but you can't make them think. But you couldn't have two more able practitioners than Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell to try to turn on their minds.

TURN TURN TURN is available from Amazon, Dan Zanes' website, and iTunes.

Here is a video of "Mystery Train" from their appearance at Kidstock 2012 on Long Island:

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