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Short Stories
Harry Chapin

Elektra 75065
Released: December 1973
Chart Peak: #61
Weeks Charted: 23

With this album Harry Chapin solidifies his position as one of our most literate songwriters. He tackles subjects too weighty for the common pop balladeer and does it with impressive urgency. But in approaching his subjects morosely, he imbues the work with a depressing quality of desperation.

Chapin describes the plight of his characters in an often moving manner. The pathetic disk jockey at "W*O*L*D" is true to life and can be found at stations from Bangor to Albuquerque. The guy is balding, he has a spare tire past the point of being love handles, and he makes spending money hosting record hops. "Feeling all of 45, going on 15," the morning man has no future, and one inevitably feels for him.

Even more graphic is the fate of "Mr. Tanner," a cleaner who sings in his store. "Music was his life, it was not his livelihood," and when he tries to make a job out of it, egged on by enraptured customers, he fails. He returns to his hometown in shame, and sings only when alone late at night. Frustrated rockers may well relate.

Paul Leka's arrangement on these tunes and "Song For Myself" are remarkably faithful to the spirit of the lyrics, appropriately dramatic and melancholy. And yet, for all Chapin's talent there is something seriously wrong here. Bad enough that there is so little humor; more troublesome is the lack of warmth. Chapin often bemoans life and berates humanity. The characters are victimized, not sympathized with. And outside of the woman Chapin occasionally writes to, there is no love in these lyrics.

"It seems our generation should have something more to say," the writer snorts. "No one's wrote a protest song since 1963." (Evidently Chapin never heard "Ohio," "Something in the Air," or even "Woman is the Nigger of the World.")

"What is it about you, mother of a country, that makes so many change our minds?... For your dream I would die; now I would not even cross the street..." That may be true, but in "Mother Country" John Stewart proved that loathing a nation's politics does not preclude loving its people. Thus, Harry Chapin's greatest shortcoming is that he seems to care so little about the people he brings to life so well.

But Short Stories remains a major achievement. Unfortunately, because it repels people, it may not be heard as widely as it should.

- Paul Gambaccini, Rolling Stone, 2/14/74.

Bonus Reviews!

Harry Chapin's still at it, and I suppose a certain kind of unhappy soul somewhere is still underlining his lyrics and writing "how true" out in the margin. These songs are briefer than his last batch, and I appreciated that -- until I figured out it meant there were more of them. One is about a buy who got married and became an FM disc jockey on the same day -- some day, huh? -- but later fell from grace, deserting his little family to become an AM jock, and things are so bad now that he's getting bald and has "a tire around my gut from sitting on my ---." (The blank is Harry's.) Another discusses a girl who believes in free love and is called "Easy" and, of course, has a heart of gold. Another is about a man who ran a dry cleaning place in Dayton, Ohio, and also sang ("He practiced scales while pressing tails," Harry tells us, in that poetic way of his) until he was talked into getting up on the stage in the big city and got shot down by the critics, who wrote, "His voice lacks the range of tonal color necessary to make it consistently interesting." That language, you understand, is woven into a song lyric. Then there's the one about this guy in the Old West who's about to take delivery on a mail-order bride.

If one could believe Harry were putting everybody on, one wouldn't feel so inhibited about inhaling when this thing is on the turntable. But Harry is so earnest, his melodies are too contrived to permit speculation that he's indulging in fun and games, and his voice -- which, frankly, lacks the range of tonal color necessary to make it consistently interesting -- is seriouser than you and I will ever have to be, with any luck at all. The arrangements are nice, though -- love that cello -- and if one listens to this one without really listening, one reaches the point that he could swear that... that somewhere... somewhere a dog barked.

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 6/74.

Get out your hankie for Harry is back with another LP of sad stories. It is his penchant for creating lengthy word pictures, of people and situations which are gray and raw edged. Among the unusual topics that Harry and his finely honed quartet offer are: an AM/FM disk jockey who makes extra money doing high school sock hops; a song to his wife because "Leon, Elton and Bernie wrote one" (with a parody of Elton's piano playing and Dee Muray's drumming); a dry cleaner from Dayton who wants to be a singer ("Mr. Tanner"). The lead song asks a lot of "have you ever" questions.

- Billboard, 1974.

Either I'm getting senile, or Harry Chapin is getting easier to listen to. His songs are still talky and rather stilted, but I'm beginning to tolerate them a bit more. "W*O*L*D" (the song about the disc jockey) is pretty neat and is almost melodic. I still can't listen to the whole album in one sitting, but at least I don't fall out of my wheel chair anymore.

- Ed Naha, Circus, 3/74.

Harry had a problem. He wanted to write a song about a DJ, kind of a follow-up to "Taxi," just to prove it wasn't a fluke. Harry doesn't meet many real people, so cabbies and DJs provide that touch of social realism. He wanted to set the song in Boise, Idaho, not because he had anything to say about Boise, but because "Idaho" rhymed with "late night talk show." Unfortunately, the letters that far west start with K rather than W, which messed up his rhythm. Akron, Ohio? Wrong rhythm again. Denver, Colorado? Nope. So he called it "WOLD" and hoped no one would notice. Note: this analysis is nowhere near as long-winded as Harry's stories. D+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

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