Thursday, May 05, 2022

Harry Chapin - Story Book: The Elektra Albums (1972-1978)

Although his initial foray into music was in his teens with his two brothers as The Chapin Brothers (they released an album called Chapin Music! in 1966 and also occasionally performed with their father Jim, who was considered a legendary percussionist), Harry Chapin intended on being a documentary filmmaker and was even nominated for an Academy Award in 1968 for the boxing doc Legendary Champions.  After shifting his focus to music and playing New York City nightclubs, there ended up being a bidding war between Columbia and Elektra before he signed a multi-million dollar deal with Elektra (considered one of the biggest at that time) and releasing his debut Heads And Tales in 1972.  Story Book: The Elektra Albums (1972-1978) is an outstanding new six CD box set that starts with that debut and covers his nine Elektra releases from that time period, all newly remastered in 2022.  He did release one last album on Elektra, 1979’s Legends Of The Lost And Found, which was a combination of some live and studio tracks, and is owned by the Chapin Family and not included here. 

Produced by label head Jac Holzman, Head And Tales is a beautifully arranged collection of tunes with Chapin's warm, relaxed vocals accompanied by his core band and the subtle use of cello and recorder. Chapin had an incredible way with telling stories through his lyrics which was evident from the start with the album’s biggest hit and one of his best known songs “Taxi”.  Hitting number 24 on the US charts, the semi-autobiographical tale of a taxi driver picking up a former lover and addressing their reflections of the past and present does a brilliant job of painting a picture of the taxi ride and the emptiness of their lives.  Both “Taxi” and the album sold over one million copies within the first six months of the album’s release. 

While the follow-up Sniper And Other Love Songs wasn’t as successful as his debut, overall it is really a stronger and more diverse release. Album highlight “Sniper” is one of the most powerful storytelling songs he ever wrote.  Written about a real-life mass shooting in Texas, the song is an almost ten minute musical movie.  Many of the other songs continue to show just how good a storyteller he is.  “Burning Herself” is an intense tune addressing self-mutilation and punctuated with some hard rock like guitar riffs, musically “Better Place To Be” is somewhat reminiscent of “Taxi” and basically tells the story of someone who feels being with anyone is better than being alone, and “Woman Child” tackles teenage pregnancy and abortion.  Another notable song here is “Circle”, an infectious tune that was covered by The New Seekers the same year the album was released and became their biggest hit.

With Short Stories Chapin once again found himself on the charts with “W.O.L.D” hitting 36 in Billboard.  The song is basically a bittersweet conversation between an aging DJ and his ex-wife as he realizes his life has passed him by as he chased his dreams of being a DJ around the country.  “Mr Tanner”, another movie like song about a dry cleaner who is encouraged by friends to go to New York to sing in a show because of his beautiful voice, but gets panned when he gets there and never sings again except by himself at night (one of Chapin’s backup singers “Big” John Wallace is featured as Mr Tanner), “Mail Order Annie”, a beautiful, laid-back tune that’s basically a love letter of sorts from a North Dakota farmer to his mail order bride, and “They Call Her Easy” are amongst several other songs here that became crowd favorites.

Opening with “Cat’s In The Cradle”, his only song to hit number one, Chapin’s next album Verities & Balderdash sold over two million copies.  The song started as a poem written by his wife and today has become a part of pop culture (there’s a segment in the Chapin documentary When In Doubt, Do Something where they show clips of the song being referenced in many TV shows including The Simpsons, Friends, Modern Family, Blackish, Stephen Colbert, The Goldbergs, Two and A Half Man and The Office along with Shrek and being covered by both Johnny Cash and DMC with Sarah McLachlan).  The album also contained a couple more singles that charted in “I Wanna Learn A Love Song” and “What Made America Famous”.  “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” and “Six String Symphony” are lighthearted tunes that showed his sense of humor, while “Shooting Star” is another gorgeous movie-like story song. 

Even though Portrait Gallery ended up being one of his least popular albums it still has plenty of great songs and the overall sound of the album harkens back to his earlier releases.  Along with “Bummer”, an epic nearly ten minute track with an outstanding orchestrated arrangement full of horns and even utilizing backing vocalists, some of the other highlights are “Dreams Go By”, a bouncy tune that’s upbeat musically, but very bittersweet lyrically, and “Someone Keeps Calling My Name”, which was originally on The Chapin Brothers release and has been rerecorded here.  

Compiled from shows recorded over three nights in San Diego, Santa Monica and Berkeley, Greatest Hits Live is largely just that, live versions of his biggest hits and most popular songs along with a song apiece written by his brothers Tom and Steve.  Chapin always shined live and had a great rapport with the crowd and it really shows here.  Along with the eleven live songs are three new studio tracks, “She Is Always Seventeen” “Love Is Just Another Word” and “The Shortest Story” (while these songs were on the original vinyl version of the album, they were removed from past CD versions and have once again been included here). 

For On The Road To Kingdom Come, Chapin turned to his brother Stephen to handle the production.  The resulting album contains the most elaborate production to that point in his career with electric guitars, horns, keys and even some sound effects.  At times this gave the album a little more of a rock sound and on the opening title track there is even a hint of a reggae beat at times.  Some of the highlights include the beautiful “Corey’s Coming”, “Caroline” and “If My Mary Were Here”, all of which are a little more reminiscent of his earlier stuff, along with twisted tale “The Mayor Of Candor Lied”.

With his brother Stephen at the production helm once again, the double album Dance Band On The Titanic is his most ambitious sounding disc.  The production is outstanding as it expands even further than it’s predecessor and the diversity of his songs are at their peak as evidenced by the opening title track, a tune with an earwormy dance beat that breaks out into an all out rocker complete with screaming electric guitars.   Along with a couple of standout ballads in “Mismatch” and “I Do It For You Jane”, other standout tracks include “We Grew Up A Little Bit”, “Country Dreams” and the humorous bluesy “Bluesman”.   Another track of note is the fourteen plus minute closer “There Was Only One Choice”, an absolute brilliant conceptual piece. 

Living Room Suite is the last album from this period and found him shifting back to the more stripped down singer/songwriter style.  While the album is still full of classic “Harry Chapin” songs, most notably “Flowers Are Red”, a really catchy upbeat tune that deals with conformity in schools and was apparently quite popular in Ireland, the record buying public’s tastes had shifted and the sales weren’t very good.  Songs like “Poor Damned Fool” and “Jenny" are great ballads, and others like “Dancin’ Boy” and “I Wonder What Will Happen To This World” find him dabbling in a bluesy gospel direction.  Chapin did go on to release a couple more albums before his untimely death in a car accident in 1981.   Cherry Red/Strawberry has done an outstanding job with this collection.  The CD’s sound great and the enclosed booklet contains a detailed bio as well as a rundown on each album and credits.  This is a highly recommended collection. 


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