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The Cat’s Pajamas

July 25th, 2008

My musical landscape is littered with fallen artists. For every Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elliott Murphy and Neil Young still soldiering on after thirty or forty years there are probably dozens of artists who released anywhere from one to five or more albums and then fell by the wayside. I remember reading back in the nineties that something like over 30,000 new albums were released each year. New albums. That’s an astonishing number when you stop to think about it. I don’t know if it’s more or less these days, but I suspect it’s probably even more. Even though record labels might be releasing fewer albums, the DIY, record, burn and sell your own CD process has probably fueled the marketplace with even more releases. Places like CDBaby, The Orchard, The Connextion and others are selling thousands (sometimes it seems likes millions) of CDs by artists most people have never heard of. Notice I said “selling.” I wonder sometimes exactly how many people are “buying” some of these albums. I’m sure there are some artists who do relatively well. After all, though I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about music, there are certainly a lot of artists I’m not familiar with who have a good following. But I’m equally certain there are plenty of artists with CDs for sale on these sites who don’t sell more than a dozen or two CDs a year, if that many.

I realized a long, long time ago, at a quite early age, that being good, hell even being great, was no guarantee that an artist would get anywhere in the music business. It was very disillusioning to my young, romantic view of the arts and the world. I’d hear so many great albums from so many artists and wonder why in the hell is this person not more popular than they are? I saw so many artists, truly impressive, significant, inspiring artists come and go leaving only their music behind. Randy Burns was one of those artists. I don’t remember how I first heard Burns. I’m pretty sure it was through his 1971 album simply entitled Randy Burns And The Sky Dog Band on Mercury. I bought it as a cut-out for 49¢ at one of the Wherehouse Records stores in Los Angeles in 1974. I probably bought it simply because David Bromberg played on two songs, I liked the cover and it was cheap. I was hooked from the very first listen. Burns has one of those voices that just sinks straight into my soul. On top of that he wrote some really great songs and his folk/country/singer-songwriter style was right up my alley.

It turned out that Burns had recorded three albums before Randy Burns And The Sky Dog Band. All were released on the eccentric ESP-Disk label in the mid to late sixties. I managed to track them all down, and while they each contained some good material I think Burns really found his voice on the Mercury album. He released two more albums, I’m A Lover Not A Fool (Polydor, 1972) and Still On Our Feet (Polydor, 1973) and was never heard from again. At least not by me. At least not for a long time. None of his material has ever been released on CD (at least that I am aware of). He’s one of those great, lost artists I wish everyone could hear and appreciate as much as I do. Sadly, not many probably ever will.

The Cat’s Pajamas was released only as a cassette back in 1991 almost twenty years after Still On Our Feet. I have no idea what Burns was up to in the meantime. A bio on allmusic.com says he continued to play music, mostly coffee houses and folk festivals, throughout the seventies and eighties. My understanding at the time this was released was that The Cat’s Pajamas was financed and released by a fan who simply wanted to see a new Randy Burns album available. I can’t remember now how I even heard it existed, but somehow I mailed off for a copy. It’s never been released on CD. I recently got around to finally transferring it from cassette to CDR.

It’s an awfully lot like seeing an old friend again when an artist you are fond of puts out a new album after a twenty year absence. But, just like attending a high school reunion, the experience can be disheartening as often as it is joyful. There’s nothing I hate more than getting a new album by one of my favorite artists who I haven’t heard from in a long time, really, really wanting to like it, to love it, to be blown away by it, only to be let down when the songs and music don’t even come close to the earlier work. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. While The Cat’s Pajama’s is not my favorite album by Burns it’s a very strong release and I would highly recommend it to anyone familiar with his earlier work (and everyone else as well).

The album is a completely acoustic affair with Burns on acoustic guitar and vocals and his old band mate from The Sky Dog Band Matt Kastner on second acoustic guitar, steel guitar, bass and vocals. Phil Rosenthal is along for mandolin on two songs. It’s what we used to call a “folk” album in the old days, but in the nineties it would have been referred to as “unplugged.” The set opens with “Jesus/Marriage Song,” two Burns originals meshed together into one performance. It’s classic Randy Burns, a plaintive melody, insightful lyrics and a moving vocal performance. Of the thirteen songs on this disc Burns only wrote three and sure enough, they are three of my favorite songs on the album. “Liela” and “The Farm Song” are both excellent examples of Burns’ songwriting skills, and I only wish he had of included a few more originals in this set.

There are three “Irish” flavored songs: “Dirty Old Town,” a beautiful reworking of an old Ewan MacColl song, “Patty Reilly” and “Go To Sea Once More” a sea shantie done a capella. There are two Dylan covers: “One Too Many Mornings” and “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues.” Now Dylan gets covered so often, and by so many people, that I tend to dismiss many attempts offhand. This is different. Burns has an extremely expressive voice that suits these two Dylan songs perfectly. “One Too Many Mornings” is not an especially well known Dylan song and I think that allows for an easier interpretation and Burns does a fine job with it here. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is a little tougher to pull off, as it’s such a classic. But again, Burns rises to the challenge, taking the number a bit slower than Dylan. The acoustic guitars provide a perfect background as Burns winds his way through the verses providing just the right amount of drama and style to breathe new life into the lyrics most of us know so well. A nice version of the Tom Paxton classic “The Last Thing On My Mind,” a Donovan cover and a Tom Pacheco song, “The Last Waltz” (which to the best of my knowledge Tom has never recorded himself), round things out. The albums ends with a great reading of “Farewell My Friend” an old Bruce Murdoch song.

I’ve heard recently that a new label, WildCat Recordings, is going to reissue Burns’ first three albums as a two disc set. They also have plans to issue a live recording with The Sky Dog Band from 1970 and a “new” album titled Only Fools Never Try (that looks from their description an awfully lot like The Cat’s Pajamas). I’ve been disappointed numerous times by new, start up labels that have planned to release things that never end up materializing. I sure hope WildCat is able to carry through with their plans and get these Randy Burns discs out soon. There may not be a lot of people waiting for them, but for those of us who are, they can’t come quick enough.

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