Graded on a Curve: Ruthann Friedman, Chinatown

Over the last decade the California-based singer-songwriter Ruthann Friedman has enjoyed a deserved increase in profile, her good fortune deriving from the reissue of material now more than 40 years old. But with the arrival of Chinatown that circumstance changes. Released by Wolfgang Records and distributed by the folks at Light in the Attic, this welcome new disc, featuring guest piano and accordion from Friedman’s longtime friend Van Dyke Parks, collects 11 selections firmly establishing her folky and warmly eclectic talent as undiminished.

Even if her name rings no bells, unless one has resided in a bunker and subsisted on a massive supply of canned goods since the days of the Kennedy administration, then contact has likely been made with the music of Ruthann Friedman. That’s because she wrote “Windy,” a tune her pals in The Association turned into a smash hit in 1967.

In ’99 BMI unveiled a list designating the tracks most played on TV and radio in the 20th century, and “Windy” landed at the 61st position. What’s more, the single was only the third time a female songsmith attained a #1 hit without a male co-writer. Adding to the mystique, Friedman reportedly composed it while hanging out at David Crosby’s joint.

“Windy” is only part of the story, though its success surely assisted in Warner/Reprise pressing up Friedman’s debut LP back in ‘69. Decades later, Constant Companion’s CD reissue by the San Francisco label Water helped to shape her role in a resurgence of smart and disparate performing women from the late-‘60s/early-‘70s.

Along with names like Judy Henske, Bridget St. John, Sibylle Baier, Julie Sill, Karen Dalton, and Linda Perhacs, Ruthann Friedman was dubbed an Astral Folk Goddess by no less an authority than Steve Krakow (aka Plastic Crimewave) in his influential Chicago-based psych-zine Galactic Zoo Dossier. The New Weird America/freak-folk experience was in full swing, and Constant Companion was well-received; a little later in ’06 it was followed by Hurried Life: Lost Recordings 1965-1971, also issued by Water.

In 2011 an imprint called Ether gathered a pair of tunes she cut circa-’70 onto a 45 and last year the Now Sounds label collected additional unearthed stuff on Windy: The Ruthann Friedman Songbook. Uncovered obscurities do on occasion reveal abilities ultimately modest, but all three of these full-lengths offered more than just writing acumen, additionally presenting her effective skills as a guitarist and a very capable voice.

She sometimes recalled Perhacs and even Laura Nyro, Friedman talented enough as a singer that Windy included her versions of Van Dyke Parks’ early nugget “High Coin” and Randy Newman’s oft-covered jewel “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” Constant Companion and Hurried Life established the qualities that resulted in her designation as a folk deity, but Windy underlined Friedman’s assorted pop gestures; rather than an artist of intense but limited scope, she possessed substantial range, a scenario that boded well for new recordings.

Chinatown fulfils that promise, containing 11 songs brimming with unexpected moments, the surprises commencing right from the start. “That’s What I Remember” is an extended number offering Friedman’s lyrically rich reflection on younger days (reading On the Road at age 13, for example), but instead of maudlin, the tale combines pleasing candor with the increasing distinctiveness of her vocal delivery.

Her singing is as strong as ever, though she’s far from treading the same territory explored on Constant Companion. It could just be the casual sharpness of Aaron Robinson’s mandolin in combination with the subject matter, but there’s a laid-back (yet powerful) bohemian vibe at work on “That’s What I Remember”; it reminds me of the masterful Holy Modal Rounders-Michael Hurley-Jeff Fredericks-Clamtones team-up Have Moicy!

The title track is next, its atmosphere reminiscent of the occasional jazziness located in the ‘70s Cali singer-songwriter scene, except smarter and minus the cocaine. Notably, Jackson Browne lent out his studio for the disc’s recording, and engineer/producer John Mueller captured voice and instrumentation with clarity while ditching unnecessary sheen.

Over the years many have attempted to conjure the “sun’s rising on a cloudless summer morning” hippie-folky prettiness that “What a Joy” emits with apparent ease. A handful have done an admirable job of coming close, but it seems only those that were actually there can really hit the bulls-eye of fragility and combine it with natural sophistication.

Some might find “What a Joy” lacking in weightiness, but lighten up, would’ya? In the aforementioned brightness and gradually increasing heat of the AM it goes down a treat. However, listeners insisting on heftier environs may find “Our War” more to their liking. It’s concerned with a certain former American President’s regrettable foreign policy decisions, but only in part; thoughtful in place of didactic, Friedman weaves the personal and the political like the finely-seasoned musician she is.

Chinatown then offers the Celtic-tinged drone-folk of “Springhill Mining Disaster,” its aged quality contrasting sharply with the song that follows it, “iPod.” Friedman is clearly critical of the titular technology, but in a likeminded manner to “Our War” she’s not a bit preachy and even emerges as ambivalent; the way she utters the lyrical phrase “disoccupy your mind” makes it obvious she understands the impulse.

Friedman did do Cyclol in the company of The Association and Donovan Leitch, after all. “iPod” does contain traces of Parks’ compositional style, though there’s also a hint of post-motorbike wreck Dylan in “All I Have,” the playing on it broad enough to please both freak-folk mavens and those swayed by that ‘70s singer-writer thing.

Readers familiar with Hurried Life will recognize “Southern Comfortable,” the only track on Chinatown recorded and released previously. And while this fresh version doesn’t differ greatly from the one taped earlier, the country-rock ambiance is thicker, Freidman’s tones slightly huskier, and the effect more assured overall.

“The End” is solid emotionalism tethered to excellent guitar and the appealingly unusual accents of David Jenkins’ bass, and the relaxed gorgeousness of “The Tides” is the moment most likely to delight enduring fans of the celestial folk shebang; if one knows a guy or gal who enjoys nothing more than traipsing around in a meadow as a boom-box nestled in flowers gently plays Joanna Newsom, then please point him or her in Chinatown’s direction. They will definitely pay one back in kind.

But Friedman and Mueller’s savvy approach to her songs insures the proceedings don’t remain in one stylistic region for very long. Closer “Sideshow,” one of three cuts bearing the contribution of Parks (here on accordion), emanates vibrancy that evades simple characterization. Far too urbane to fit into the quaint folk bag as subtle earthiness highlights those boho attributes, “Sideshow” culminates a CD of fine, low-key American music from a highly versatile and lasting artist.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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