(WOLFGANG RECORDS; 2013)
She wrote “Windy”? That big hit for the Association way back when? Really? It just proves once again, there is always something new to learn. I’d never heard of Ruthann Friedman before, but in addition to that rather significant songwriting credit, she apparently hung around with the likes of David Crosby and Joni Mitchell back in the early ’70s Laurel Canyon days. Before reading that, I could tell she was an older woman when I put this on; CHINATOWN clearly is the work of a mature artist, and the repeated refrain on “That’s What I Remember,” played over a blend of acoustic guitar and mandolin, is, well, “that’s what I remember.”
There’s a blend of whimsy and melancholy on most of these songs, and the musical arrangements are simple, so as to let Friedman’s lyrics shine through. Her voice is not the most distinctive or pretty, so I wouldn’t say this is an instantly captivating record. But if you’re in a receptive mood, songs like “Springhill Mining Disaster” (about an unfortunate event in Nova Scotia), the piano-laden “iPod,” and the atmospheric, existential angst rumination “All I Have,” which has an effective chord progression that soothes the ears, will hold your attention. It’s worth mentioning that the legendary Van Dyke Parks, another guy who knows plenty about the scene from which Friedman emerged, plays piano on “iPod,” “The End,” the title track and one or two more. And Jackson Brown loaned her his studio for the recording.
There’s a little Phoebe Snow, a little Christine Lavin, a little Laura Nyro in her presentation, but mostly Friedman sounds like someone who has been around a long time, and is both exhausted and still interested in the path of life. “The End” and “The Tides” are contemplative tunes that can trigger thoughts about your own life, and I gotta admit, they did provoke an emotional response in me. But Friedman falls short of providing a true catharsis; she’s just not that interesting of a vocalist. The songwriting is pretty strong here, though, and for a restless afternoon’s listen, CHINATOWN is reasonably pleasant.