Patty Larkin grew up in the Midwest and got her college education on the West Coast, but she is most associated with the thriving Boston folk scene. Since settling in Massachusetts in the early 80s, she has recorded an amazing string of great albums and engaged in some potent social justice activism. Her first two albums were recorded for Philo. While promising (and showing off her wit and stellar guitar work), they barely hinted at the power she would later unleash. She released a nice live disc and joined Christine Lavin, Megon McDonough and Sally Fingerett for the first tour of the fun feminist folk quartet Four Bitchin’ Babes. As that tour wrapped up, she released her first disc for Windham Hill’s High Street Records, the incomparable Tango.
||Will Ackerman and Patty Larkin
- Used to Be
- Upside Down
- Time Was
- Solo Flight
- Dave’s Holiday
- Chained to These Loving Arms
- Metal Drums
- Letter From Vancouver
- Deadlines and Dollar Signs
- Waiting For the Dawn
- Tango Reprise
Things kick off delightfully with the title track. The life-is-a-dance metaphor is often used, but Larkin infuses it with such joy that it takes on new life. The celebration of life and romance is a true delight. From there things move into more pensive territory with the poignant Used to Be. It’s the story of a man adrift in a world of changing values and modern ideas. Larkin takes that personal sketch and gives it broader meaning, working on multiple levels as most of her more intimate songs do.
The sense of change and motion continues with Upside Down, describing the roller coaster effect that life can have. Serious but fun, Larkin’s tone perfectly straps us in even as we think about the bumps on the way. Time Was is a bit of a musical departure, foreshadowing the more complex structures that Larkin would investigate more fully on future albums. It’s jazzy and loose, reveling in a love made sweeter by absences.
Up next is Solo Flight, a great acoustic guitar romp. Larkin is an amazing guitarist (one of the best I’ve ever seen live) and really cuts loose on this short instrumental. We get back into a sense of fun with Dave’s Holiday. A goofy song about the kind of guy you don’t want to get stuck next to in a campground, it shows off some good musical chops and reminds us that folk music doesn’t always have to be serious stuff.
But of course it CAN be serious stuff, like Chained to These Loving Arms, a dark song about love being a (potential) shelter from hard times. We shift from the personal to the political with Metal Drums, a righteously angry screed about a company whose environmental malfeasance doomed an entire town. Larkin then gets personal again with the wistful beauty of Letter From Vancouver.
Deadlines and Dollar Signs is a nice skewering and celebration of the music business, showing off her serious-but-fun approach at its best. Waiting For the Dawn is a condemnation of South African apartheid. It works especially well because of the nearly offhand way that Larkin juxtaposes everyday inconveniences with true oppression. Kathleen is a snapshot-from-an-old album kind of song, a memory of someone lost set to some great guitar work.
Always interested in a bit of fun (she channels Marlene Dietrich in concert), Larkin wraps up this extravaganza of life with an offbeat accordion reprise of the title track. Somehow, it works. On the surface, it’s a typical 90s folk album with personal and political songs alternating over mostly acoustic instruments. Patty Larkin is so far above ordinary, however that her lyrical power, wit, and musicality forge a set of songs that capture the dance of life with maturity, grace, and just the right amount of whimsy.
FURTHER LISTENING: Larkin has never released a dud. Her first two albums suffer from folk underproduction but have some lovely moments. The musical journey she undertook became much more varied and complex (never ignoring her core strengths) after Tango. The standouts are Stranger’s World and Red=Luck. She’s a marvelous live performer, and a go go does a nice job of capturing the essence of her shows.