Nicholas Phan's 'A Change Is Gonna Come' - Stellar new recording of American protest songs

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday June 18, 2024
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Nicholas Phan's 'A Change Is Gonna Come' - Stellar new recording of American protest songs

As I listened, repeatedly, to Nicholas Phan's new CD, "A Change Is Gonna Come" (Azica Records), a collection of American protest songs, it occurred to me that it's been a while since I've heard someone's singing called "honest." Admittedly, it's a hard criterion to nail down, but the fact that you know it when you hear it is at the heart of the matter.

It's also been a while since I've called a tune "catchy," the hallmark of a good protest song. But the dozen songs on this new album —by composer-musicians from Malvina Reynolds and Sam Cooke to Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell— come like manna from heaven to anyone who is unusually susceptible to earworms. Having these songs in your ears will turn an ordinary walk into a brisk march. The temptation will be to sing them out loud.

Of course, the out, San Francisco-based Phan, as honest a musician as walks among us, does the singing part better than even his most ardent fan could. But the sheer energy in his new project —itself said to be a long time comin', and in the event a triumph of devotion over documentation— is infectious.

Just in time, you might add. There's a pivotal election on the near horizon, and a message of this new CD is its implied invitation to all who love freedom, to make their feelings not just heard but loved, their demands as unforgettable as they are unassailable.

Freedom on the march
It's telling that for the most part the songs on this album are historical. But their importance is that they've also proved lasting.

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong may have failed, at least for now, but it was sustained by a song, "Glory to Hong Kong," written for the protests and composed for singing by musical amateurs. "The People United Can Never Be Defeated" has outlasted the Chilean action for which it was composed to become the international ur-protest song, as familiar around the world as the Twentieth Century Fox movie intro.

In America, Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" takes pride of place for sheer endurance and manifest singability. The new disc opens with it but in an arrangement for string ensemble, without voice, that is striking for its immediate recognizability while creating a sound world all its own. The fresh, galvanizing sound of the Palaver String Ensemble makes for a musical partnership that goes far beyond accompaniment.

The winds of change having blown, Phan immediately weighs in with Phil Ochs's "What Are You Fighting For," dispatched with the high tessitura that shows his voice at its most beautiful. What stands out in this new release is the hard-won freedom in Phan's singing itself. With no compromise of its characteristic, meticulous musicality, it's wild. The voices in the songs are those of people with no desire to take to the recital stage, and Phan finds the right accent for each.

The singing is free-wheeling, often indulging in the shifts of vocal register that move freely between "normal" voice, head voice, and all-out falsetto. Call some of it crooning if you must, but what could be more reflective of the American DNA than a good croon?

A career breathing life into Schubert's strophic songs and the folksong settings of Benjamin Britten has made Phan a master of putting over songs with multiple verses. In "What Are You Fighting For?" Phan captures their increasing intensity.

There's the call to attention in "You tell me there is danger in the land you call your own." What follows is a warning: "Then listen to your leaders, the ones who won the race, as they stand right there before you while lying to your face. If you ever try to buy them, you know what they stand for. I know you're sympathizing, but what are you fighting for."

Then it lands on its message, sung with extraordinary tenderness by Phan: "But the hardest thing I ask you, if you will only try" is to look into the eyes of children to see what's worth fighting for. "If you win the war at home, there'll be no fighting anymore." Achingly beautiful.

When Phan launches into "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill last night," Earl Robinson's lines are reborn. Its new if imagined sightings of the labor activist arrested and himself accused of murder become increasingly visionary, with Phan at his yearning best. I wouldn't have thought I needed to hear Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" ever again, but Phan begins it a capella and on a thread of silvery sound that swells naturally through the rest of the song.

Everything old is new again
Alongside the greatest hits are other less-well-known songs of the past and some daring new ones to meet the challenges of the future. Malvina Reynolds's "It Isn't Nice" spits out some bitter ironies; Phan retains their sting but also accents their innate humor.

Of the composers represented, perhaps none is better known today than Joni Mitchell, though "Fiddle and the Drum" is hardly among her most famous tunes. Phan convincingly captures its dialogue between the fiddle of domestic bliss and the drum with its sticks beating out the rhythms of war.

Character is a dominant element in all these songs, and Phan never passes on an opportunity to enact it, not just with carefully spoken words but with genuine, personal feeling.

"Strange Fruit," closely associated with its renditions by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, gets an arrestingly fresh reading by a guest singer, mezzo-soprano and jazz vocalist Farayl Malek, who bores deeply into the savagery of Southern lynchings in a remarkable new arrangement by Jonathan Bingham. The album ends with her penetrating performance of the title track, Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come."

Midway Phan weighs in with two songs, commissioned for the album, by Belize-born, England-based Errolynn Wallen. Her lively, uproarish anti-war song, "Boom Boom," gets the deluxe treatment by the vocally versatile Phan, while her more direct "Song for the People" is dispatched with all the colors in its percussive, often literally monotone declamation.

"A Change Is Gonna Come" is as much an invitation as a historical artifact. With the very real prospect of the hard-won gains in gay rights being reversed, now, there's a pressing need for change to come again. Readers of a certain age will remember when the now-month-long Gay Pride celebration was best known for its march of a parade and called "Gay Freedom Day." The songs on Phan's album, drawn from earlier but equally tumultuous times, share their resounding plea for freedom.

Nicholas Phan, "A Change Is Gonna Come," with the Palaver String Ensemble and guest vocalist Farayl Malek. Azica Records, CD and streaming.

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