Review: John Gorka’s ‘Before Beginning’ Revisits His Earliest
Studio Recordings August
Beginning, a recovered cache of John Gorka’s earliest studio recordings
from 1985, is subtitled The Unreleased I Know. Thirty years ago,
Gorka decided to shelve these ten songs, nine of which appeared
two years later as better-known versions on his official debut
album, 1987’s I Know (Red House). He quips in the liner notes
of Before Beginning that this collection is “the I Know nobody
that shouldn’t tag this set of demos as a mere curio for completists.
early versions, appearing as kind-hearted sketches and confessionals
filtered through a perpetual outsider’s spyglass, are no less
solid than their better-known variants. Jim Rooney’s production
adds ribbons of pure-toned electric guitar and arching alto saxophone
in an amalgam of neo-traditional country and E Street Band-style
crowded, but the production sells the songs. “Down in Milltown,”
for example, chugs at an accelerated pace through swooping pedal
steel as Gorka’s spiraling acoustic guitar is burnished and tight.
Know” boasts serpentine guitars and rim-shot percussion, while
“Blues Palace” slips Gorka’s percussive acoustic and fine-grained
baritone between coiling stabs of electric guitar. In contrast,
the surreal gem “Branching Out,” where Gorka imagines himself
as a tree, is stripped down and direct.
Gorka released Before Beginning as planned, it would have been
a solid start. He’s confident here and his songs soar. Only he
knows why they needed to take another tack. But in revisiting
his false start, Gorka gives us the opportunity to hear once-familiar
tunes with fresh ears.