At home with the old folk

October 21, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

To the average listener, Greg Kihn's new solo album, "Mutiny," might seem like an abrupt shift in direction. It isn't just that the album is largely acoustic or consists mostly of songs by other writers; what really sets "Mutiny" apart from the rest of Kihn's catalog is its folk-music content.

Instead of the catchy, new wave rock of "Jeopardy" or "The Breakup Song (They Don't Write 'Em)," Kihn gives us a modern sea shanty sound on the title tune, dips into Caribbean folk styles for "Joshua Gone Barbados," and even a ballad version of "Subterranean Homesick Blues." A Kihn-tinuation of his old style this isn't.

But as far as Kihn is concerned, the album is more a homecoming than a departure.

"I did it in Baltimore, which is my hometown, and it was great," he says during a recent visit to Clean Cuts studios, where the album was recorded. "It was a family project. I got to use my friends. Jack [Heyrman, the album's producer], I've known since high school.

"Musically, it was the stuff I started playing originally. Stuff like 'Joshua Gone Barbados,' 'Femme Fatale' and 'Gwabi,' were songs that I played when I was first learning how to play the guitar. I was picking it up from Tom Rush, Jim Kweskin and stuff like that. All those years when I was making rock 'n' roll records -- really, this was the music I was coming from.

"So I don't feel it's a stretch or anything different, because I'd always been doing this kind of music," he concludes. "It was just done behind closed doors, in hotel rooms in Seattle."

Kihn didn't just do no-frills, hootenanny versions of the songs, though. Most of the familiar songs were radically re-arranged, pulling new color from the old melodies, and sometimes almost seeming to reinvent them. Perhaps the most striking example of this is "Subterranean Homesick Blues," in which Kihn slowed down the monotone rant of Bob Dylan's original and found a striking, beautiful melody in the song.

"It was fun to do a slow version of that. I had heard a guy named Terry Boylan do it way back like in 1969," he says. "That just stuck with me over the years.

"I really think I figured out the song when I sang it. It was a one-take vocal. What can I say? It just kind of popped out."

Although Kihn had plenty of help making "Mutiny" -- the musicians involved range from guitarist and percussionist Wall Matthews to singer Aleta Greene to accordion whiz John Shock -- the album is strictly a solo project, something totally apart from his work with the Greg Kihn Band.

"We did try an electric version of 'Sittin' on Top of the World, and I probably will work maybe one or two other cuts into the band's live show," he says. "But really, the band is a different entity, totally different from this album. So it's really hard to cross-pollinate those two."

Still, that doesn't seem a problem for Kihn's listeners. "People are loving it," he says, sounding both genuinely pleased and slightly incredulous. "It's shocking. The feedback that I've gotten from people is that they love it. They just don't like it, they love it. I'm really pleased."

Making that victory seem especially sweet is the fact that Kihn wasn't trying to make an album for his audience -- he recorded "Mutiny" mostly for the pleasure of singing those songs.

"I feel that the reason this is such a good album was that the thought that went into it wasn't corporate thought," he says. "We sat down and scratched our heads, but it was only, 'Gee, how can we make this song better?'

"It wasn't like, 'Well, what's going to sell a million records? What's going to get us on the radio?' The main consideration was what sounds best, what's right for the song.

"This is my 18th album overall, and that's really the first time I've ever done that," he adds. "Because in the back of my mind, there was always this pressure to write another 'Jeopardy' or another 'Breakup Song,' have another hit. But this is the first time really in my whole life that I sat down to make an album with only one thing in mind, to make the best album I could make, and not care about all those other things -- selling records or getting radio.

"By not trying, I actually got closer this time, I think. It's just good music, and it seems to me like the market is in need of good music. It's strangely hip."

The music of 'Mutiny'

To hear excerpts from Greg Kihn's new album, "Mutiny," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6224 after you hear the greeting.

Kihn in concert

When: Saturday, Oct. 22

Where: Spike and Charlie's

Tickets: $15 (seating is limited)

Call: (410) 467-4231

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