I haven’t heard “Alice’s Restaurant” in years and, honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the entire song, given it’s length. But anyway, I listened to this because it’s considered by some critics to be one of Guthrie’s best albums. That appears to have been a mistake.
Despite its title and cover, the music is all over the place. As others have noted only two songs really feel like they are “on theme.” One of those songs is pretty good as a song. And some of the other material here is pretty good too, though it really does vary in terms of quality. This is something I’ve heard about Guthrie’s writing but this is the first album I’ve ever heard from him, so I honestly don’t know. (“Victor Jara” is pretty good, though.)
There is a much bigger problem. Well, actually there are at least two problems, but the biggest one is Guthrie’s voice. I have no idea when Guthrie started singing like this but on one third to one half the tracks he sounds like he’s really imitating Bob Dylan circa Blood on the Tracks and Desire. In fact, at it’s most worldly, this album sounds like a pale imitation of Desire. Now, it’s possible it was Dylan who was imitating Guthrie when he changed the way he sang again, but I’m giving the benefit of the doubt to Bob Dylan because, you know, he’s Bob Dylan. And Arlo Guthrie is the son of Woody. Regardless of who imitated who, for someone who’s heard these Dylan albums many, many times, it’s extremely hard to ignore the vocal sound on these tracks.
The other less obvious problem is Guthrie’s style, which varies from an African song to novelty, to serious social comment, and with the accompanying instrumentation sometimes going full ’70s pop folk, with crashing drums, keyboards and strings. Absolutely not my thing.
I’m kind of amazed that this album is so well-regarded. To me, it’s a mess. And it would be greatly served by Guthrie not sounding so much like the most famous English language singer songwriter ever. If he sounded different on those songs on which he sounds too much like Dylan, I’d probably bump it up one on that alone.