Saturday, October 23, 2010

Grooves: Don McLean - American Pie (1971)

Will Don McLean ever get out of the shadow of his most well known song, "American Pie?" My guess is no, but the fact remains that Don McLean's album American Pie proves that beyond the culture bomb of the titular song, McLean is still a damn good singer-songwriter. My mother is a huge Don McLean fan beyond his one massive hit. His other songs are quiet at times with some of the most beautiful poetry. and I say poetry over lyrics because the way his lyrics run on many songs flow with the beauty of a romantic poet. This album may have some of his best written poems. Only his second album, American Pie is a well crafted album of wondefully arranged tracks. Be it a piano ballad, an acoustic love song or a full band pop song, there is a little bit of everything on this album. Discovering this is the first step in getting Don McLean the kudos as a singer-songwriter what he deserves: recognition beyond just his one huge song. And it's a pretty tough feat to overcome, especially given the fact that this album is named after it.

This is yet one of many of albums found in the walls of Tunes. Tunes is an institution that has been a part of my life since being a kid. Tunes on the Dunes in Ocean City, NJ was my first Tunes of choice. Each summer, I'd stop in there and pick up some classic rock album. Then it was on CD, but Tunes opened my eyes to many new and old artists. They finally started selling vinyl and organizing it sometime in the mid aughts when vinyl fever really started for me. I grabbed this record for $1. It seemed like a must own as I had grown up with it. It's as good a record as it is a piece of nostalgia.

American Pie clearly starts off with "American Pie." Without lingering on too long on a song everyone and especially their mother knows, "American Pie" is an important litmus test in how rock and roll has an effect on society. The death of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens was not only a tragedy in the sense of loss, but it was also a first step away from the innocent 50's into the more turbulent 60's. Don McLean obvious notes this in his litany of sorts showing the change after "The Day The Music Died" and what would happen in the country thereafter. I feel as if you could dedicate this entire post to "American Pie" as it is such a transcendent piece of rock history and pop music, but this is a look into the album itself. "Till Tomorrow" is the first of several acoustic ballads. With just acoustic guitar, some mild electric piano playing in the background and some very sparse instrumentation, it's a more conventional singer/songwriter track but still has that beautiful poetry McLean is so good at. Perhaps McLean's second most famous song, "Vincent", a ballad to Vincent Van Gogh, is just as sparse as "Till Tomorrow." One artists lament to another, lyrically it's one of McLean's best. "Flaming flowers that brightly blaze" is a wonderful lyric that is just as expressionistic as Van Gogh's paintings. The troubled mind of Van Gogh must have hit a chord with McLean. It addresses the troubled life of Van Gogh and in beautiful form. "Crossroads" ends the side on a melancholy note. Most of this record is very sad lyrically. Don McLean has a melancholy lament on all tracks, even though they all shine with beautiful melody and wonderful singing. Piano and vocals accompany this very sad song. Lyrically it's about the decisions we make, some good and some bad. It's a touching song and a great end to a wonderful first half of the record.

"Another Side" as this record states, starts with "Winterwood", the first track since "American Pie" to feature a discernible backing band. And although it's a wonderfully groovy track, there is something about the band addition that makes this a little less effective than some of the other songs on side one (called "One Side.") It gives the song a different vibe all together. "Empty Chairs" follows more along the lines of "Vincent" with McLean's wonderful lyrics backed by a gently plucked acoustic guitar that pops. This is my personal favorite of the love songs in Don McLean's collection. It's a lost love song from the stand point of someone who didn't see it coming. It hits home on many levels. Who hasn't felt the loss of someone they loved? It's as beautiful as any Nick Drake tune and just as poetic. It's definitely the highlight of side two. The crackle on this record is perfect, channeling a wonderful spirit behind the loneliness of the song. "Everybody Love Me, Baby" is a bigger distraction than "Winterwood." It's a half tongue in cheek pop song, but something about it really turns me off. I don't think McLean sells the pastiche very well. "Sister Fatima" is a peculiar track. It's a musically beguiling track and lyrically it seems to be an indictment of paying for grace from God. It's another distracting song, which was omitted when American Pie was re-issued in 1980. I guess this means I have an original record? Cool. "The Grave" is a much more effecting track. It's a dark song, almost like Tim Buckley's "No Man Can Find The War" with it's intense lyrics of war and death. It's followed by the traditional "Babylon" which is as chilling of a follow-up as you can get. It's a fitting end to an album about facing death, the ending of relationships and the loss of important figures in life. A traditional which slowly builds upon several tracks of McLean's clean vocals and a banjo being plucked. Indeed a stirring contrast to the almost joyous "American Pie."

With a few tracks left for the throwaway bin, American Pie holds its own surprisingly well. Yet you will rarely hear any song but the titular and maybe "Vincent" if you are lucky. It's a truly wonderful album, and McLean would go on to put some other fine records together. "American Pie" the song eclipses American Pie almost more than any other album containing a big hit song I can think of. It's truly a shame, but one great thing I can say is that those who like singer/songwriters should not be without this record. And what better way to discover it, be it for the first time or all over again, than on vinyl.

Up Next: Neil Young is the first repeat artist and this time, Dean Stockwell does the album art.

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