We’re one full week in to Whistle Down The Wind’s release. There’s enough news that I’m splitting it in two. This post is about reviews (hence qualitative) while the next will be about various stats or stat derived measures.
The reviews are great both for the album as a whole and for “The President Sang Amazing Grace” in particular! Rolling Stone’s review says, “If it doesn’t send a chill down your spine, see a neurologist.” but there’s a ton of other exuberant praise. There’s a couple of negatives as well, but they are marginal. So yay!
Will Hermes for Rolling Stone:
On “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” written by the Philly-bred artist Zoe Mulford, Baez tells the story of a man going into a Southern church and murdering black parishioners – not Birmingham, 1963, a year after Baez became the face of the modern folk movement on Time magazine’s cover, but Charleston, 2015, when one might’ve thought such hatred had become biologically vestigial. Over piano and mournful bowed bass, she describes a President worthy of the moniker, who sang when “no words could say what must be said/For all the living and the dead .” If it doesn’t send a chill down your spine, see a neurologist.
Mark Deming for All Music (also aggregates user ratings):
In songs like “The President Sang Amazing Grace” and “I Wish the Wars Were All Over,” Baez makes clear she’s still committed to a better world without attaching herself to polemics that will be dated in ten years
Brian Griffith for KRCB:
The song “The President Sang Amazing Grace”, written by Zoe Mulford, is alone worth the price of the CD.
Chuck Campbell for the USA Today Network:
Also, there’s unfortunate ongoing resonance in Zoe Mulford’s chilling recap of the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C., “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” where Baez sings, “We argued where to lay the blame/On one man’s hate or our national shame.”
Graham Reid for Elsewhere:
However given the news of the most recent high school killings, her incisively simple version of Zoe Mulford’s The President Sang Amazing Grace (about the Charleston church killings in 2015) she seems presciently timely, and we might also observe tragically timeless in a broken America.
I’m prepared to say it again: I’ve been wrong about any number things in my writing and life, and Joan Baez’s catalogue counts pretty high in my “silly you” confessional.
If this her final album she is leaving with something akin to a quite amazing sense of reflection and a forgivably self-conscious grace . . .
Paul Barr for Readings:
The absolute standout track (by unknown writer Zoe Mulford) is ‘The President Sang “Amazing Grace”’. This is a song that seems to come from Baez the Amnesty International ambassador; it perfectly encapsulates her belief in hope and non-violence. It describes former president Barack Obama at a funeral service for those killed in a church mass-shooting. He sang ‘Amazing Grace’ at the service.
Nathalie Lacube for La Croix:
Son pacifisme, exprimé avec gravité avec I Wish the Wars Were All Over, et son engagement pour les droits de l’homme ne sont pas restés figés, ils demeurent actifs dans le monde d’aujourd’hui, comme en atteste le très beau titre de Zoe Mulford, The President Sang Amazing Grace. Évoquant le service funèbre célébré pour les neuf paroissiens d’une église noire de Charleston (Caroline du Sud) tombés sous les balles d’un suprémaciste blanc en 2015, durant lequel Barack Obama avait joint son chant à celui de la chorale, ce titre fait sombrement écho à Birmingham Sunday qui dénonçait l’assassinat de quatre fillettes noires par l’explosion d’une bombe lors d’un office religieux en 1963 dans l’Alabama.
Neil Spencer for The Guardian:
The President Sang Amazing Grace, Zoe Mulford’s account of the 2015 Charleston church shooting, hits a sweet spot
Clive Davis for the Sunday Times (only 75 words in total!):
Zoe Mulford’s The President Sang Amazing Grace is a telling snapshot of a society riven by gun violence.
Lee Zimmerman for Glide Magazine:
Mostly gone is the quivering falsetto, replaced instead by a smoothly captivating cadence that makes songs such as the title track, “Civil War” and the timely yet ironic “The President Sang Amazing Grace” ring with her trademark lilt.
Nicky Crewe for www.pennyblackmusic.co.uk:
I found listening to these songs a very emotional experience, for all sorts of reasons. I have to say there are three songs that have moved me to tears.
The next is Zoe Mulford’s ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’. What an overwhelming tribute to the man and his response to the circumstances. The tragedy that took place in Charleston in July 2016 is relatively recent, but this is a song that will endure. It reminds me of ‘Hollow Point’, Chris Wood’s response to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in July 2005, in the aftermath of the London bombings.
Jeremy Searle for Americana UK:
Although there are the expected socially relevant songs like Zoe Mulford’s ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace and Eliza Gilkyson’s ‘The Great Correction’ the album’s centrepiece is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘The Things That We Are Made Of’, an excellent, piano-driven version [ed: there’s piano doing good work on this track, but I don’t understand how it’s driving it] that truly hits home.
The most beautiful and moving song of the album is by far the “Zoe Mulford’s The President Sang Amazing Grace”. The interpretation of Joan Baez captivates from the first moment.
Paul Kerr for Blabber ‘n’ Smoke blog:
We can’t ignore the one song here which stabs to the heart and which nails Baez to her sixties civil rights roots while acting as a bit of a slap to the present POTUS. The President Sang Amazing Grace, written by Zoe Mulford, is a straightforward account of the shooting by a white supremacist of nine people in a church in Charleston and of Obama’s moving eulogy thereafter. Baez sings as if in a church, the band swelling behind her with an incredibly moving arrangement, the only pity here being that she still has to sing of events such as this fifty years after she first started to.
Fiona Shepard for The Scotsman:
She revisits her perennial peacenik themes – I Wish The Wars Were All Over is based on a 400-year-old text but she also comes right up to date with Zoe Mulford’s direct, eloquent and moving The President Sang Amazing Grace, inspired by Obama’s eulogy following the Charleston church shooting.
Terra Naomi for TalkHouse:
I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a 50-year career, especially the one of an artist as iconic as Joan Baez. Whether marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, being arrested in Oakland for encouraging young men to resist the draft during the Vietnam War, or taking shelter in Hanoi during a carpet bombing, Baez has actively and outspokenly protested and participated in the issues, beyond the scope of any other mainstream artist in history, so it is not surprising that she chose to interpret Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace.” Written about President Obama’s response to the Charleston church shooting, the song is a moving and distressingly relevant tribute, especially given the inevitable comparison between our former and current leaders’ reactions to the ongoing plague of mass shootings in our country.
Simon Sweetman for Off The Tracks:
In fact the album has several centrepieces – but it’s Zoe Mulford’s The President Sang Amazing Grace that steals the show. This, with the closing I Wish The Wars Were All Over, is Baez’s anti-Trump sentiment. Her statement/s. The performances have her trademark poise and vulnerability; she rocks between the two, cradling the song, holding on for strength and with strength.
Alex Ramon for Pop Matters:
The reading of Mulford’s song, with Tyler Chester’s piano work dominating, takes on a hymnal quality that’s touchingly understated, avoiding sententiousness.
Giuliano Benassi for laut.de (via Google translate):
Only once she gives up on her [guitar], in an obscure piece that she heard while driving on the radio. In it singer Zoe Mulford processed the killing of a young white man who had sat down in the worship service of a black community in Charleston in 2015, suddenly pulled a gun and shot nine people. President Obama spoke at the funeral and at the end improvised a gospel.
“But no words Could say what must be Said / For all the living and the dead / So on day and did in that place / The president sang Amazing Grace “ is the refrain. She had to [stop], so much [was] she hit [by] the piece, Baez explains. For a long time she had to cry when she played it herself on the guitar. The piano accompaniment on the album apparently helped her stay calm.[ed: No!]
Joe Lacorte for mxdwn.com
The most arresting extrospective moment and one of the album’s several emotional cores is Baez’s reading of Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” recounting the 2015 Charleston church shooting and its aftermath – as stark and moving a contemporary folk song as you are likely to find.
Amazon (US) customer reviews:
Zoe Mulford’s ‘My President Sang Amazing Grace’ fits perfectly into Joan’s career-long coupling of her music with her activism—it tells the haunting and tragic story of the Charleston SC church shooting and asks why and how, but offers no resolution. What it reminds us of is the simple humanity and healing within a song….and of the difference compassion and humility can make in a nation’s leader. Another of my favorite songs so far is Eliza Gilkyson’s ‘The Great Correction’—-a challenge to humankind to either change our ways, or face a devastating, inevitable ‘correction’ that may already be upon us.
Robert G Yokoyama:
My favorite song on this album is “The President Sang Amazing Grace”. This is a beautiful song about all the recent shootings that have been going on in churches and in schools,, and how the President of the United States shows his support for the victims by singing “Amazing Grace”. I love the song “Whistle Down The Wind”. This is the kind of song that makes me appreciate my home and wherever I am at. I like the song “The Great Correction” is another pretty song. This song promotes peace and values honesty. These are two virtues that I believe Joan Baez embodies.
Dave Franklin for Dancing About Architecture:
It is gently political, revelling in observation and social commentary rather than anything more forceful, but it has always been her way. Whilst the likes of The President Sang Amazing Grace takes a literal stance, generally she is happy to remain analogous [ed: analogous? really? maybe allegorical, or ambiguous, or elliptical?], making broad statements rather than specific points.
But on that same note, the social engagement she always stood for is still there as well, and she can still turn righteous anger about the injustices of our times into gorgeous performances. Civil War, I Wish The Wars Were All Over and especially The Great Correction offer plenty of food for thought. On that same note, however, The President Sang Amazing Grace is way over the top, infused with that sense of melodrama that makes US politics so unbearably sanctimonious and sentimental for a cynical European like myself. But it’s the odd one out on an album that otherwise doesn’t put a foot wrong.
“Cynical European”? Ok! I don’t quite get this, esp the melodrama. I guess if you read the song as saying that singing Amazing Grace was magical and fixed problems, then it’s melodramatic. That’s not my reading.
Kat for The Common Ills
She tries to sing Zoe Mulford’s unironic and insipid “The President Sang Amazing Grace.”
This reviewer really dislikes Baez and Obama. I find it amusing that another reviewer found “President” ironic!
(I’ll note that Uncut also though it was too obvious though didn’t harsh on it to this degree…more like Dave Franklin.)
Still! Not bad at all!
Interview by Stefan Woldach for Badische Zeitung (via Google Translate):
BZ: The song “The President Sang Amazing Grace” is about how President Obama will sing this famous song in 2015 after the assassination of a church in Charleston at the funeral for the victims. She was very touched by this gesture?
Baez: Right. It is a dark song, but also beautiful. Above all, it shows me how cold and disgusting the White House is today. Everything that comes from our government today is vicious. Even though Obama made mistakes and made decisions that I did not like, he was a mindful person. And the gesture that he came to Charleston and sang-no other president did that-was a wonderful gesture. It came from the heart. Obama was missing the words. So he sang this hymn. That was perfect.
Interview by Philipp Oehmke for Der Spiegel(via Google Translate):
SPIEGEL: Ms Baez, on her new album is a song titled “The President Sang Amazing Grace”. It describes a great moment in the Obama presidency: After the murder of nine black churchgoers by the racist Dylann Roof Barack Obama at the funeral, the song “Amazing Grace” on.
Baez: The song is not from me, but from an underground folk singer. I heard it myself at a local radio station while sitting in the car. I had to stop at the side of the road because it overwhelmed me. It was clear that I had to take it on the album. I had to learn to sing it without crying with emotion.
SPIEGEL: So bad?
Baez: I also do not know why this song is so powerful. Probably because one comes to mind at the same time: That’s over. And not only that we are now with less. We are faced with evil.