JOHN GORKA – The Bright Side of Down (Red House Records)

gorkaIt’s been a while since I last crossed paths with a John Gorka album, but, listening to this, his twelfth, I’m pleased to find a seamless transition from my memories. Indeed, if anything he’s now so seasoned that he makes everything feel effortless, delivering a sound that’s as comfortable as your favourite old slippers.

At times, as with the waltzing ‘Bright Side of Down’ he reminds me of classic Tom Paxton while at others there’s echoes of Bruce Cockburn,  notably so on the laid back ‘Thirstier World’, a timely (and metaphorical) renewal song about the approaching spring and its victory over long winters, a season and theme to which he returns on ‘Really Spring’. There’s a touch of Cockburn too on the opening ‘Holed Up Mason City’, written after being snowed in while returning home after a tour, which, despite the Cajun flavoured accordion, has a similar jaunt to ‘Wondering Where The Lions Are’. As musicologists will know. Mason City was from where Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper took their last flight and both are referenced here, a reminder that he has an easy but effective way with an image or a phrase as on ‘Outnumbered’, a fingerpicked love song with steady tap beat rhythm, where he sings “I was never a player, maybe in song but not in love

Unfortunately, the downside of Gorka’s mellow mood is that sometimes the lyrics are rather less inspired, the lazy and undeniably catchy fiddle and banjo dappled ‘Mind To Think’ rhyming damage with sandwich, ham and cheese apparently, while the otherwise smartly written appropriately bluesy JJ Cale groove ‘Procrastination Blues’ with its soulful female oooh ooohs succumbs to the obvious cliché of ‘don’t put off till tomorrow what you can fail to do today’. And it will take a massive effort of will not to wince at the cooingly catchy but twee overload of ‘Honeybee’’s “the only girl worth thinking of, the  honeybee doodle bug.”

Thankfully, Gorka’s warm voice, relaxed delivery and hummable melodies are ample distraction in such moments and any minor blips are more than compensated for by ‘High Horse’ (with its hint of John Prine), one of the album’s two best  numbers, which addresses the economic downturn where “the neighbourhood’s gone quiet since the good jobs went south” as the narrator asks an old friend for help “for Gracie if not for my sake” and talks about memories and “scissors for thoughts”. Likewise on the musically circling title track and second standout where, joined by Eliza Gilkyson and Lucy Kaplansky on the chorus, he sings of hope and survival, observing that “maybe the key is thoughtful words and deeds to open up the voices of your dreams.”

There’s one non-original number, an unadorned, acoustic guitar accompanied ‘She’s That Kind Of Mystery’, a song written by the late Bill Morrissey who is also the subject of ‘Don’t Judge A Life’, a moving, emotion-stained tribute to his friend sung with breathy tenderness as he asks us to “measure a life by what was best”, closing with a reminder of love and mortality and that “we are here and then…..we’re not”.

Celebrating 30 years since he first found fame at the Kerville Folk Festival, it’s a little late in the day to be a game changer for what has been a steady and acclaimed if commercially unspectacular career, but anyone who’s followed him on the journey will be more than happy.

Mike Davies

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