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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1372

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Richard Shindell: Vuelta
by George Graham

(Koch Records 9538 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/4/2004)

In my line of work, I am lucky enough to hear a good deal of the new music emerging in the styles that the commercial media avoids. So it often comes as a surprise, and even perhaps a sacrilege to members of my generation, who grew up in the 1960s, when I say that today holds much more and better music in the folk and singer-songwriter mode than almost anything from the 1960s. While there was indeed some worthy, innovative music back then, if one makes the effort to detach oneself from the emotional and nostalgic appeal of the music and compares the bulk of the music back then with the today's bright lights on the singer-songwriter scene purely on the merits, one could easily make the case that the best of today's artists far surpass most music from the 1960s folk scene.

And one of the brightest lights among contemporary singer-songwriters is Richard Shindell, whose new CD is called Vuelta. One of the most literate and often powerful lyricists, with an often-plaintive vocal style, and wide-ranging musical influences, Shindell has won the hearts of the critics, who tend to use superlatives in describing him, and veteran artists alike, such as Joan Baez who has not only covered Shindell's songs but has toured with him.

It has been a long time since Shindell's last full CD of new songs. His last release in early 2002, was a live recording reprising some of his songs, and also doing some unexpected covers. It was over four years ago that Shindell released the brilliant Somewhere Near Paterson, which cemented his reputation in the field. Vuelta is his fifth studio solo release, and interestingly it was largely recorded in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Shindell's biography is a fascinating one. The New Jersey native grew up on Long Island, and spent his teenage years in Baltimore. He attended Moravian College, in Bethlehem, PA, for a while, where he was in a band with another of today's finest singer-songwriters, John Gorka. Following college, Shindell decided to move into a Zen Buddhist monastery for a while, then went to Europe where he spent some time supporting himself as a street musician in Paris. After returning to the US, he decided to take a break from music, and entered Union Theological Seminary, with the goal of becoming a priest-psychologist. But music beckoned again as he started writing songs between classes, and soon had enough to resume his musical career. His debut release Sparrow's Point was released in 1992, and soon began to attract attention. After some additional solo releases, Shindell formed a trio with Lucy Kaplansky and Dar Williams called Cry Cry Cry, which tended to perform other people's songs, despite the presence of three outstanding songwriters in the group. The trio achieved a fair amount of success, with nearly two years of touring.

Shindell returned to his own music in 2000 to create Somewhere Paterson, and the same year, moved to Argentina, following his wife. He has been based there ever since, and says he loves Buenos Aires. He told me in an interview a while ago, that for a travelling musician used to doing extended tours, living in Buenos Aires does not really mean much extra travel time, relatively speaking.

Since he is based there, he decided to record his latest effort in the Argentine capital, using area musicians. But except for one piece with lyrics in Spanish, the record continues Shindell's established sound with tasteful, mostly acoustic instrumentation. The result, while not quite at the level of Somewhere Near Paterson -- and there are very few albums anywhere near that level -- is another fine recording, affirming Shindell's place among the finest of the genre, of any generation.

The Argentine group with whom Shindell records is a quintet called Puente Celeste, who generally use conventional instrumentation, not often lending much specifically South American influence. Portions of the CD were recorded in the US, and include appearances by Ms. Kaplansky and Tracy Grammer, the fiddle-playing former partner with the late songwriter Dave Carter. Also appearing is bassist Lincoln Schleifer, who has been part of Shindell's regular band for a while.

The title Vuelta is a Spanish word that has several meanings, including "turning around" and "returning home," and several of the songs have journeys as the subject or as a subplot. That is less obvious on the opening track, called Fenario, a story about a woman in love with a soldier who was off to fight in the locale called Fenario. It's all given a timeless atmosphere, with a quote from the Irish poet John Donne toward the end. <<>>

The Island is another song that fits into the theme of the CD's title. Its setting is an island resort, where the protagonist had apparently settled, after originally just wishing to vacation there. <<>>

Shindell is known as a powerful storyteller in song. Che Guevara T-Shirt is this CD's example. It's the story of a stowaway aboard a ship from Buenos Aires who put himself into a shipping container in hopes of coming to the US. <<>>

The idea of "vuelta" as a returning is brought out in Hazel's House, recounting of a New-Year's Eve visit with family, done as a solo acoustic performance. <<>>

The song in Spanish is Canción Sencilla, which is mainly a straight love-song. <<>>

Over his career, Shindell has written several fine songs of social commentary. On Vuelta he revives a song from a previous generation, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, made famous by Pete Seeger in the 1960s. In the context of the Bush Administration's war on Iraq, the song again has resonance. Shindell's distinctive arrangement breathes new life into what became a kind of anti-war classic about the stubbornness of a leader. <<>>

Another story song is called The Last Fare of the Day, about a taxi driver. Though the subject matter may remind some of Harry Chapin, of a previous generation, Shindell takes a somewhat different direction. The taxi driver here drives a couple home, then meets them again in his cab months later, when they have started a family. <<>>

About the only indication of the South American recording locale of this CD comes on There Goes Mavis, the story of a little girl who releases a caged pet bird while the family is at the beach. The musical setting hints as bossa nova, with some exotic percussion. <<>>

Richard Shindell would have a hard time topping his remarkable 2000 release Somewhere Near Paterson, a recording that confirmed his place as one of the finest singer-songwriters of almost any generation. His new CD Vuelta does not quite exceed his last studio effort, but it's still a thoroughly worthwhile CD of fine songs, tastefully performed, that seems to get better at each successive listening. The fact that he recorded his CD in Argentina with local musicians adds an interesting, though subtle facet. Otherwise, the musical backing is quite tasteful and nicely understated. Shindell's vocals are fully up to his high standard.

From a sonic standpoint, we'll give the CD close to an A. The recording was well-handled with the mainly acoustic instrumentation given a pleasing, uncolored sound. The dynamic range is somewhat better than contemporary standards.

Though you would never know it from the commercial media, we really are in a Golden Age of folk-based singer-songwriters with literally hundreds of top-notch artists making music that greatly exceeds the quality of most of the music from past generations. And Richard Shindell is the personnification of that.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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