Your crusty chronicler is an individual who does his own thing. Still, when Examiner asked for support for their new “List” format, it was nigh impossible not to be open-minded about it. So, with that spirit of unity and teamwork in mind, your rockin’ reviewer presents this series—“Track by Track” in which we shall review certain select CDs literally “track by track”.
James Halifko is a New Jersey-based singer-songwriter and musician. Halifko’s signature sound is essentially old school”folk music with lyrically contemporary content. He is Woody Guthrie-style musical wanderer who stops at the site of every moern day controversy to share his spin on it. His newest release, Destiny Garden, is a 12-track digital release-only album.
Halifko elaborates: “This is a collection of songs in which I express my philosophy, experience and notions. I am in my mid sixties reflecting on at least sixty years of life's ups and downs, historical events, change and core truths (as I perceive them).”
He adds: “Some lyrics, share experience or belief; some provide a warning; some provide hope; some simply express a point of view. We ultimately arrive at our own unique destiny and I hope it will provide a moment in a lovely garden where you can ponder your questions and meanings in peace and comfort.”
His musical M.O. is “do-it-yourself”. He says: “I play and sing all the parts on all my albums”. In fact, with the exception of his rock band Hard Rain (1981-82) Halifko has always been a solo act. This new release stays the course. He handles the “orchestration, recording tech, mixing and mastering tech and artwork” himself.
The album opens on an interesting introspective offering titled “Destiny”. Here Halifko introduces new listeners to his tuneful take on his Woody Guthrie-like presentation and Bob Dlyan-like contemporarily focused lyrics. It quickly becomes obvious to even newcomers that Halifko is very comfortable with his stripped-down style and wants listeners to be as well.
The second song is titled “Open Country”. This is an acoustic anthem of freedom. As Halifko puts it is “a song about freedom and living unencumbered.” The message is simple in terms of meaning and musical presentation and yet universal. In fact, Halifko is actually a part of an honored tradition of performers who sit and strum acoustic guitars while tunefully telling a tale of American freedom.
“When the Bell is Tolled”
The next number is “When the Bell is Tolled”. It is not as one might suspect of a folk musician an anti-vet song. In fact, it follows a grand tradition of songs that praise our military veterans. Mind you, Halifko is not Madison Rising and doesn’t write Republican rock. Halifko makes “a distinction between anti-war and anti-veteran” and notes that “needing a military for defense may be a permanent fact of life.”
“Un-found Children” follows here. This song is like a folk song PSA. Mind you, this is not the first time. Halifko is all about worthy causes and social issues. He also has so far recalled how to be political in a way that doesn’t turn him into a tuneful albeit tedious “know-it-all” like Bono. Halifko notes that “un-found children are abused (children) or victims of crime and while we have made progress in dealing with this problem sadly it still happens.”
“Shell Games and Card Tricks” and “Crown of Glory”
“Shell Games and Card Tricks”contains more of Halifko’s observational lyrics. This one focuses on human nature and is most fitting in terms of the tuneful, traveling troubadour. Halifko feels “we still haven't learned to trust science and not our distorted perceptions.”
It’s followed by “Crown of Glory”. This obviously spiritually-inspired track hooks into his inspirations in terms of style of songwriting and performance. Halifko elaborates: “Psalm 26 suggests aging is a good thing (and it is) but you only experience it if you survive. You survive if you live right and do not abuse your body.” It’s a cautionary tale set to music.
“Cactus Flower” somehow attracted the attention of yours truly early on although it’s difficult to say why. It might just be one of those songs that stands alone and works even better in a particular moment. This too offers words of wisdom especially to guys who are “vulnerable to the machinations of a Jezebel – like woman.” (Come on, aren’t we all?)
“Who Killed the Bees”
Halifko addresses yet another environmental concern with “Who Killed the Bees”. Halifko sings of “the demise of pollinating bees that provide humans with at least a third (if not half), of the needed food crops seems to be the result of greed and ignorance.” Hopefully, this song will have a very short shelf-life and very soon future listeners will have no clue why he felt the need to write this song. At least being given bad news backed with music takes away a little bit of the sting (no pun intended).
“Medical Roulette” is an early fan favorite having garnered some early attention online. It presents the humorous albeit near pathetic way in which we jump at the latest “medical wonders we purport to have” and then just as quickly clamor to call “lawyers ready to help one sue for the slightest mishap or malfunction.”
"Can not Beat them Block them” and “Living Wage”
The ninth number, "Can not Beat them Block them” takes on the relatively recent controversy regarding voter fraud. He states: “this song is a statement about voter IDs as I perceive the motivation for them.”
“Living Wage” is another current, contemporary cut told in the style of the coffeehouse crooner. Halifko makes no bones about his political stance as he sings a song that makes it clear he feels “the working poor should be given a wage that allows them to make ends meet without going to extraordinary lengths, like holding multiple low-paying jobs.”
“Garden” and end-note
The closing cut is “Garden”. It gives the entire sociopolitical piece a positive end-note as he plays his own “romantic metaphor for the experience we may share about our reflecting on life when we reach our 'golden years'.”
Overall, Destiny Garden provides another noteworthy example of an old-school approach that is pleasantly raw, real and meaningful. He returns listeners to the day when we enjoyed and learned from the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
Halifko agrees, in fact, that he is “reaching back to Woody then Dylan . . . because the songs are making a point. Another aspect of some of my music is it is designed to be easily shared; sing-a-longs. I had a reviewer write once I didn't use any new or fancy chords; he missed the intended point: I wanted people to play and sing the songs (even beginners).”
The world can still learn something from baby-boomer who have not lost their way. The world can still learn something about one of the true purposes of music.
Halifko’s Destiny Garden might just remind you of what’s important in life if you can see past the “Shell Games and Card Tricks”.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.