Monday, March 14, 2011

Merle Haggard - Sing Me Back Home

As whole albums go, Sing Me Back Home is a relatively minor entry into Merle Haggard's early catalog.  Most of the early Capitol Hag albums are built around a hit, a few potential hits, and some filler.  While you can't name a 60's Merle Haggard album that I don't enjoy from beginning to end, it's true that the good stuff is more concentrated on some albums than it is on others.  In other words, an album stands or falls based on the quality of the filler, and Sing Me Back Home has quite a bit more filler than it has potential hits.

The title track is nice and solid--stately and emotional, with a sort of anthemic quality that's a new thing for Haggard at this point in his career.  There are a couple of good drinking songs--"Wine Take Me Away" and the heartbroken "I'll Leave the Bottle On the Bar," as well as the catchy mid-tempo "Where Does the Good Times Go?"  "Seeing Eye Dog" is the most Bakersfield-sounding track on the disc and probably my favorite, with a pounding tempo, nimble steel guitar and some powerful vocals from Merle.  Add to the list the well-handled novelty tune "Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp" (it's a surprisingly jolly tune about an abandoned single mother who provides for her 14 children by becoming a prostitute) and you've hit the album's brightest spots, songwriting-wise.  Elsewhere Merle mines the songs of his Bakersfield forbears, with the somewhat out-of-place "Mom and Dad's Waltz" and tosses off the similar yet similarly out-of-place "Home is Where a Kid Grows Up." Songs like "Look Over Me," "If You See My Baby" and "My Past is Present" lack the wit, verve and hooks of their like on earlier Hag albums, though there's nothing objectively wrong with them.

Still, Sing Me Back Home is an enjoyable listen irrespective of the quality of the individual songs--the production is sterling, with a lot of close-miked guitars, drum kits and backing vocals, and Merle's vocals are worth paying close attention to for an entire listen for the depth of nuance and subtle emotion; he's not quite singing the phone book, but it's clear that his (and his band's) abilities as performers are capable of elevating material much higher than its weaknesses would seem to allow.

Get it here on CD or MP3.

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