In the late 1960s, John Prine was a Chicago mailman who wrote and played songs as a hobby. Then, in the summer of 1970, at age 23, he started performing in local clubs. Just three months later, he was attracting big crowds, at least one of which included Roger Ebert, who decided to take a break from film criticism to rave about this “extraordinary new composer and performer.” Only about a year after that review started people talking, Prine’s fan club had expanded to include the likes of Steve Goodman and Kris Kristofferson, and he had an Arif Mardin–produced album in the stores.
When you hear that self-titled LP—which ranks among the most impressive folk debuts ever—you understand why Prine’s star rose so quickly. Most of its songs are now considered classics, and many of them have been covered by a wide assortment of other artists. As Kristofferson observes in the liner notes, “Twenty-four years old and writes like he’s two hundred and twenty.”
On the album, Prine delivers wry, deftly phrased humor (“Illegal Smile,” an ode to marijuana, and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore”) and gets convincingly into the heads of characters at least half a century older than him (“Hello in There” and “Angel from Montgomery”). In “Sam Stone,” meanwhile, he limns a moving portrait of a morphine-addicted war veteran with deftly written lines like, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.”
You’ll find lots more evidence of the genius that Kristofferson, Goodman, Ebert, and a rapidly increasing number of others raved about on Crooked Piece of Time: The Atlantic & Asylum Albums (1971–1980), which collects all the material from Prine’s first decade as a recording artist. It includes remastered copies of the aforementioned 1971 debut as well as Diamonds in the Rough (1972), Sweet Revenge (1973), Common Sense (1975), Bruised Orange (1978), Pink Cadillac (1979), and Storm Windows (1980). There are no bonus tracks, but the limited-edition set does incorporate all of the original albums’ cover copy and inserts plus a 20-page booklet with new liner notes by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke.
Not all of these CDs deliver as many moments of brilliance as Prine’s debut, but each of them includes enough must-hear material to suggest that that first record was no fluke. Though “Take the Star Out of the Window” on Diamonds in the Rough sounds like an inferior follow-up to “Sam Stone,” for example, that album also has the excellent “Souvenirs” as well as “Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You,” a new song that feels like an old standard. Sweet Revenge includes the sprightly, smile-inducing “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” and a poignant breakup tale called “Blue Umbrella.” (“Just give me one good reason and I promise I won’t ask you anymore,” Prine sings in that one, “Just give me one extra season, so I can figure out the other four.”) Common Sense has its high points too, but its ill-conceived production buries Prine’s uniqueness under too much instrumentation.
Bruised Orange, on the other hand, is essential. Frustrated by weak sales and finding himself walking a “thin line between Billboard and Bellevue,” Prine had taken a three-year break before returning to the studio to make this Steve Goodman–produced album. It’s his best work since the debut, thanks to gems like “If You Don’t Want My Love,” which he wrote with Phil Spector; the clever and catchy “That’s the Way That the World Goes ’Round”; and “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” the strange but brilliant tale of an Indian actor who goes on a midwinter promotional tour of shopping malls in the American Midwest.
A preponderance of covers on Pink Cadillac and Storm Windows suggests that a bit of a writing dry spell followed Bruised Orange, but even these albums include a few good original compositions. There’s also much to recommend the well-chosen material by other writers, which ranges from Floyd Tillman’s “Cold War (This Cold War with You)” to rockabilly numbers from Billy Lee Riley and Jack Clement (“No Name Girl”) and Charles Underwood (“Ubangi Stomp”).
Prine—who battled cancer twice and died last April at age 72 from complications related to coronavirus—continued to make great music for nearly four decades after releasing the last album in this box. (The Tree of Forgiveness, his 2018 final record, was among his best.) If you’ve somehow managed to miss his work, you’d be well advised to start at the beginning. Crooked Piece of Time will take you there.
These Fine Moments, Season 10. This fifth full-length album from Austin, Texas–based Hilary Kaufmann and Robert Watts garners its title from the fact that the duo have now been performing as These Fine Moments for 10 years. Produced by Austin studio wizard Mark Hallman, who also provides the rhythm section, the set features instrumental and vocal backup on two tracks by Ken Stringfellow (Posies, Big Star). The music hearkens back to the best of 1960s folk/pop/rock with shimmering acoustic and tremolo guitar work and sublime vocal harmonies that may remind you at times of It’s a Beautiful Day, the 1960s San Francisco group.
Arrica Rose & the …’s, Technicolour Blue. “I tried to imagine each song as a little movie,” says Arrica Rose; hence the title of this EP, which includes five original numbers (one cowritten by her producer, Dan Garcia) plus a medley that inventively weds “Over the Rainbow,” the Wizard of Oz ballad, to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio.” The music—which a press release aptly describes as “retro-tinged California folk-pop”—is consistently catchy and powerful, but Rose’s passionate vocal work is the star of the show.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.