Album Review: John Ford (of The Strawbs), No Talkin’
John Ford of the Strawbs
On the surface, you would think that writing an album without any lyrics would make for an easier task than needing to worry about marrying the perfect lyrics to catchy melodies. At least, that’s what I thought when I first popped John Ford’s latest offering, No Talkin’, into my car’s CD player. Of course, I’m about as musically gifted as a dead hamster, so what do I know? Thankfully, however, I catch on quick, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that having no words through which to tell a story to the listener is probably one of the most difficult undertakings a musician can tackle. Certain rare guitarists like Laurence Juber do this well, but for every Juber or band like The Shadows, there are hundreds of albums that don’t rise to the occasion and wind up getting dusty on a shelf in the den or worse, in a discount bin at Wal-Mart. Ford’s No Talkin’ is not destined to be one of those albums.
John Ford is a music veteran, having done time with The Strawbs and The Monks, working with Ian Lloyd (of The Stories) and Blackmore’s Night, as well as having a colorful solo career. He’s played shows with a Who’s Who of rock and roll royalty (Jimi Hendrix, The Eagles, Jefferson Starship, Frank Zappa, and more), and he’s written some classics such as “Part of the Union.” In short, he knows his shit and isn’t screwing around when he arrives at the studio. Every time he picks up a guitar, something epic is guaranteed to happen, and yet he is still stretching out, pushing boundaries and challenging himself to discover the undiscovered. Because of this, No Talkin’ is not your father’s instrumental album, which I quickly found out as I drove the five hours from Vermont from New York City.
Because I’ve been conditioned like some sort of Pavlovian album reviewer by years of listening to music which features lyrics, at first I have to admit that I was a bit leery of an entire album fronted by guitars. For the first 30 seconds or so of the first song on the album, I kept waiting for the singing to start even though I knew it wouldn’t. I even started making up my own lyrics in my head to fill the space where I kept telling myself words should be. Ring a bell and I drool, I guess. Then it happened: I got caught up in the infectious rhythm, the powerful energy of the song, and I forgot my initial discomfort. Ford and the musicians who play on the album (John Cardone, Richie Alan, and a skillful John Ford, Jr.) finally got through to me. I started to envision the story that they were telling through their chords and beats. Their instruments became the brushes that were creating a musical painting in my mind, and I was fully on board.
“The Reaper,” the album’s starter, feels like a song you would blare from your stereo as you roared down the road on a deserted highway which, ironically enough, I was doing at the moment it began to play. I got the sense of navigating the open road, of the pure freedom that you feel behind the wheel of the car with no particular destination in mind. As the first notes of “Spanish Jive” rolled out of the speakers, I could picture dancing with someone on a beach, at night, holding each other a bit too close to be friends, but not close enough to be lovers. Quite a cat and mouse game, but a sensual one. As you can tell, by the album’s second number I had really got into the idea of creating my own story for each song.
The title track, “No Talkin’,” seemed a bit introspective, as if lamenting a problem that needed to be dealt with, one that was causing angst. However, the melody is hopeful enough that it’s obvious that all is not lost. Perhaps I was bringing my own issues to the song, but that’s the beauty of music; you take away from it what you want to, and I did with this album. “Tomorrow’s World” was placed perfectly to bookend “No Talkin’” as the former seems a song of hope, an ode to something that you hold dear, and which you know you won’t have to live without. “New Horizons” follows this theme of looking to the future, although it’s more a song of adventure, of exploration, or perhaps of seeing something you’ve seen a hundred times before, but this time you are looking with a fresh set of eyes.
I should mention that I purposely chose to not look at the song titles prior to listening to the tracks on the album, hoping to not have the names influence my interpretations. I was pleasantly surprised when I listened to the sixth song of No Talkin’, “Looking for Django,” and thought to myself, “Wow, this sounds like Django Reinhardt,” or at least a song you might have heard in a dancehall during the days when Django’s fingers flew over the frets. Sometimes I’m right on the ball.
The last four songs on the album form a pack that seems purposely placed together. “Joyce’s Song” is full of loss, both the pain of losing someone you cared for as much as life itself. However, to love someone means that even during the ache you can rely on the comfort and joy of memories. Ford comes out of the thoughtful mood with “36-24-36,” a fun-loving and frisky romp which lightens the mood and lifts the spirits. On its heels is “Lost Horizon,” something I could easily imagine being played while you lie in bed with the one you love, holding them as they drift off to a night full of pleasant dreams. There is tenderness present in the tune, almost like the feeling of watching your lover gently breathing while they are under the spell of the Sandman. Lastly, “Dead Ending,” the cleverly-titled last song of No Talkin’ is a foot-stomper that will cause your face to split with a wide and happy grin that spreads from one ear to the other. The album begins and ends with songs that will leave you wanting more, and the ones in the middle do not disappoint.
One of the greatest aspects of No Talkin’ is that I played it again a week after my first listen, and because my mood was different, I interpreted some of the songs differently. Without lyrics inhibiting the stories of the music, I was able to bring myself into the album which turned me from a passive, Pavlovian listener to an active participant in what I was hearing, and I have to say that I was blissfully appreciative to John Ford for that gift. No Talkin’ gets two enthusiastic thumbs and one grateful imagination up from me.