At face value, it’s hard to miss the oddity of Foreverly. Billie Joe “Front Man of Green Day” Armstrong and Norah “Grammy Winner/Daughter of Ravi Shankar ” Jones collaborating to remake a 1958 Everly Brothers album of American folk songs. That’s about as close to a Mad Libs album concept as you’re going to get.
Armstrong is one of the most recognizable voices in alt rock. Jones is who you’d see in the dictionary upon looking up “adult contemporary.” Jones occasionally adds a country tinge to her work, but is mostly known as a jazzy pianist-singer. The quietest thing Armstrong has ever done is that semi-sarcastic break up song that was played at your high school graduation.
What makes this even stranger is that it was Armstrong’s idea. He started listening to Songs Our Daddy Taught Us a few years ago, and wanted to remake the album to introduce the material to a new audience. He also wanted to do it with a female singer to “broaden the meaning” as compared to two brothers singing. Armstrong met Jones at the 2005 Grammys, where they performed with Stevie Wonder (you can see them standing together at 1:34), and Armstrong decided to call her.
At what point does it STOP being weird? After listening to it.
Because Foreverly works. Well.
As indicated, the tracks are rootsy American folk songs initially made famous by the likes of Gene Autry and Charlie Monroe. In typical folk fashion, many of the songs have a somewhat grim twist but as sung and arranged in ways that sound loving. There are songs of outlaws, loss, sorrow, regret, respecting your elders, and ultimately love. There is an Appalachian murder ballad in there for good measure, too. (It was also covered by Nick Cave, so you know it’s the real deal.)
With one exception, the songs are in the exact same order as the original album. With respect to the original, I think the change helps the album: the song is a murder ballad, and is the second song on the original record. Armstrong and Jones’s decision to move it to fifth allows a better grouping of songs in terms of themes and pacing.
The entire album is recorded in a way that’s true to its source – with close harmonies, acoustic instruments, and boom-chick beats. The little electric instrumentation present is subdued. There’s no shouting or vocal acrobatics – just harmony. That doesn’t mean it’s a carbon copy – Armstrong and Jones do manage to put enough of their own take on the songs to spot the difference between this and the original.
The most distinct difference from the source material, of course, is the fact that the singers are different genders. As Armstrong intended, this is one of the albums greatest strengths – besides harmonizing exceptionally well for people on a musical blind date, it allows the record to take on a broader meaning. Love songs like “Oh So Many Years” take on a different meaning with singers of opposite genders (or at least, singers who aren’t related to one another.)
Even though they had barely sang together before – and in fact barely knew each other – Jones and Amrstrong have the chemistry of old friends. You’d swear they grew up together listening to this album after playing in the fields. You’ll be sure that they sing these songs because they want to ask forgiveness of their father (“Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”) and for you to know the story of a sad boy on the train visiting his dying mother (“Lightning Express”).
It’s also a chance for Armstrong to demonstrate the subtlety in his voice – something we seldom see when he’s pop punk-ing it out with Green Day. The fact that he manages to match Jones note for note shows vocal ability on his part that we’ve never heard before.
Perhaps what makes it works best is that, at its core, this is clearly a labor of love. Both artists have a connection to the source material, and both did this simply because they thought it would be a fun project. At this point, they have no plans on touring together and have done few to no influx of promo appearances. This allowed them to focus all of their energies on simply making the music they wanted to make. Their passion shines through on each song – they wanted to pass these songs onto another generation and have fun while doing it. Mission accomplished.
It might wrong to say that an album featuring Armstrong and Jones is poised to be a sleeper hit, but it looks like that might be the case. There’s been little promotion – mostly a lyric video or two released mere weeks ago – despite the fact that it features two major stars of the music world.
In the meantime, don’t sleep on Foreverly. If you have an interest in rootsy folk music, check out this album. If you WANT to have an interest in rootsy folk music, check out this album. If you like Norah Jones or Bille Joe Armstrong, check out this album. If you’re expecting Armstrong to reinterpret these songs with pop punk guitar rhythms or Jones to include jazzy vocals, change your expectations – and then check out this album.
Foreverly was released on CD and digital download on Nov. 25th, and on vinyl on Jan. 24th, 2014. It also drops on cassette on Dec. 10, for anyone who drives a car made before 2003.