Saturday, April 14, 2018

Review of Joan Baez's "Diamonds & Rust"

I posted the following review about an hour ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: "Well I'll be damned/Here comes your ghost again" - from Joan Baez's "Diamonds & Rust"

Joan Baez first rose to fame as one of the great protest singers of the Vietnam War era. She established herself in the early 1960s, becoming known for her interpretations of classic folk ballads, and for her beautiful vibrato voice. She was also instrumental in Bob Dylan's rise to prominence. She was already well-established in the Greenwich Village folk scene when he came along, and although she was initially unimpressed with him, they became lovers. Baez soon came to appreciate Dylan's skills as a writer and a performer, and her endorsement of him helped the folk community to accept Dylan and to gradually come to understand his genius. Baez eventually capped off the 1960s by performing at the Woodstock Festival. Clearly, she was among the most important voices of her generation.

Nevertheless, as happens to most artists, her fame had a shelf life. She had a Gold-certified album in 1971, Blessed Are..., which featured a very successful single in her cover of Robbie Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". By the middle of the decade, however, the Vietnam War was coming to a close, and Baez's star seemed to have faded ... until the release of this LP.

Diamonds & Rust is a stunning achievement. It revitalized Baez's career, and gave her an opportunity to show off her exquisite voice to a new generation. It also featured arguably the strongest original song she ever wrote, the poignant title track. And the rest of the album ain't too shabby either.

So let's talk "Diamonds & Rust". The song was written after Baez received a phone call from Dylan out of the blue. Dylan was working on his own iconic Blood on the Tracks album, and called to read her the lyrics to his composition "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" (which might have been partially about his relationship with Baez). It always seemed to me that Baez cared more about Dylan than vice versa, and although she was the more established artist when they first met, he certainly went on the greater prestige in his career than she ever reached. In any event, the phone call brought back a bunch of memories and feelings for Baez, which she then poured into this song.

"Diamonds & Rust" features a simple, but elegantly picked, folk guitar, a perfect vocal, and some of the most personal and affecting lyrics that Baez ever wrote. It begins with Baez receiving the phone call, and her reminiscence: "As I remember your eyes/Were bluer than robin's eggs/My poetry was lousy you said," continuing, "Ten years ago/ I bought you some cufflinks/You brought me something/We both know what memories can bring/They bring diamonds and rust." Clearly, these aren't all happy memories. She goes on to accuse Dylan of being an expert at "keeping things vague", and concludes, "I need some of that vagueness now/It's all come back too clearly/Yes, I loved you dearly/And if you're offering me diamonds and rust/I've already paid." Ouch! Over the years, there have been some fine cover versions of this song, by artists ranging from Blackmore's Night to Judas Priest. However, there's never been a more impassioned or beautiful version than this original one.

As mentioned, the rest of the album contains some other treats, although nothing quite as memorable as that intense title track. These include "Dida", another original that gives Baez a chance to cut loose vocally with another of the great female folk singers of the era, Joni Mitchell; some well done covers of John Prine's "Hello in There", Janis Ian's "Jesse" and Jackson Browne's "Fountain of Sorrow"; and a hokey-but-enjoyable medley that splices together a pair of old classics, "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Danny Boy". And if you can't get enough of the whole Dylan/Baez vibe, there's also a cover of Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate", and another, less pained track which Baez also wrote about Dylan, called "Winds of the Old Days".

Diamonds & Rust is one of Baez's best LPs. It gives a powerful sample of her capability as both a singer and a songwriter, and it makes an irrefutable case that she deserves to be remembered at least as much for her musical talent as she is for her social activism.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars