Not Far Now

cover of Not Far Now

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released 2009   Signature Sounds

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Not Far Now is Richard Shindell's first collection of new original songs in five years, and he knew it was overdue. "There are various subtle indications that it is time to make a new album," he explains from his adopted hometown of Buenos Aires. "Like when my fans start looking at me funny, when I've run through every puzzle at every level in the sudoku book, or when my children start to ask me what I do for a living…"

Widely acclaimed as one of today's finest narrative songwriters, Shindell has a rare gift for using detail to illuminate his characters' motivations and actions without ever getting mired in minutiae. Not Far Now's nine new compositions (complimented by a pair of outside songs) are haunting vignettes that exist vividly beyond the song that documents them: Shindell gives the listener a window into these lives, but their story continues long after the window is shut. "Time deposits me, the character I'm writing about, and a listener there at the first line," he observes. "Then, at the end of the song, at the end of the last line, life and time go on. The song happens in between those two moments."

The songs on Not Far Now are among Shindell's most cinematic and provocative, constructing scenarios in a voice that is notably free from moralizing, judgment, or conclusion. Opener "Parasol Ants" is a notable example, presenting a snapshot of a fallen small-time criminal, knocked to the ground within inches of a row of ants carrying chunks of green leaves over their heads. The thug is at once powerless in his own world and all-powerful in the ants'. "He is God," Shindell sings, "and his breath is the gale." A quick exhalation reinforces both the dominance and futility of his situation. "Parasol Ants" is also strong evidence of Shindell's undersung melodic gifts, with his confident yet conversational vocal delivering a tune as memorable as it is simple.

"State of the Union," a tale of an addict's journey into and out of sobriety with George W. Bush's annual congressional address as the backdrop, has been part of Shindell's live sets for several years now. Boldly unsentimental, it is an unglamorous glimpse into the day-to-day struggle that divides renewal and relapse, rendered by Shindell with unflinching clarity and honesty. Elsewhere, he crafts evocative tales of crooked developers ("One Man's Arkansas"), assumes the role a lovelorn street performer anxious to overcome physical and social barriers ("Juggler Out In Traffic"), and offers a stark, knowing reading the late and much-missed Dave Carter's postmodern spiritual "The Mountain."

One song undertook a curious transformation from inception to conclusion. "I was reading Many Years From Now by Barry Miles. It's a biography of Paul McCartney, one of my musical heroes," Shindell recalls. "When I finished, I went on a two-week Beatles listening binge, during which it occurred to me that I wanted to write an update to 'She's Leaving Home.'" The resulting song, "Bye Bye," is less of a sequel and more of a meditation on the act of songwriting and a song's ability to connect with people over time. "Once I got into it," Shindell continues, "I came to the conclusion that providing that story with a resounding conclusion would be false and graceless."

Nine years ago, New Jersey native and longtime New York resident Richard Shindell himself left home, relocating his family to Buenos Aires, Argentina. "Argentina feels like home now. Despite its many dysfunctions, the place and its people really get under your skin," he explains. "Some of the subject matter of the songs on Not Far Now is rooted in the my experience of the local context. For example, 'Mariana's Table 'is about a woman who sells empanadas to the truckers in a town called Brandsen, in the Province of Buenos Aires. 'Balloon Man deals' with a guy in our neighborhood here in Buenos Aires."  

Before he left, Shindell firmly established himself as a leading light on the American folk circuit, via a compelling series of albums of original songs (beginning with 1992's Sparrow Point), the live Courier (2002), and 2007's collection of outside songs Vuelta. The Wall Street Journal proclaimed him "a master of subtle narrative," while Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times that, in Shindell's songs, "The tone is reflective, but the dilemmas and disappointments couldn't be more vivid." Shindell toured tireless behind each of his albums, building a dedicated following among both listeners and his fellow arists, leading to an offer to tour with Joan Baez and the formation of Cry Cry Cry, the all-star trio of Shindell, Dar Williams, and Lucy Kaplansky, who released an eponymous album in 1998 and toured regularly through 2000.

Kaplansky contributes vocals to Not Far Now, and other guests on the project include bassist Viktor Krauss, venerable session drummer Steve Holley (Dar Williams, Joe Cocker, Elton John, Wings), keyboardist David Sancious, and vocalist and violinist Sara Milonovich, among others. Shindell plays an array of stringed instruments, including acoustic, electric, and twelve-string guitars, electric bass, percussion, piano, and bouzouki, which is featured prominently on many of Not Far Now's tracks. "I've been playing a lot of bouzouki," he says. "As the Irish discovered as well, it's a great instrument for accompanying the human voice. It also produces a very persistent, driving kind of sound, which I find generates a certain energy in an arrangement." The instrument is most strikingly used as an accompaniment on a powerful version of Cuban revolutionary songwriter Silvio Rodriguez's "¿Qué Hago Ahora?"

Despite his expatriate status, digital technology enables him to collaborate with musicians around the world. For Not Far Now, Shindell recorded basic tracks in his dining room, which he and co-producer Greg Anderson then transmit digitally to other musicians. "They send them back to us," he explains, "at which point they are incorporated into the master recording. This back and forth goes on until the money runs out." While Shindell can describe what he is looking for each musician to add, not being in the same room when the parts are recorded means that he was in store for a surprise each time a track came back in. "The entire process," he says, smiling, "from beginning to end, is a series of happy accidents!"

Of all the themes and characters investigated on Not Far Now, a surprising favorite emerges: "Get Up Clara," a soliloquy delivered by a weary traveler to his mule as he wanders rootlessly through the backroads, set in the later days of the Roman Empire. The song's appeal is obvious, Shindell insists. "Of the eleven songs on this record," Shindell reflects, "there are three that have shown up pretty regularly in my live sets during the past year or two. People seem to like 'Clara' the most, as do I. This is perhaps explained by the fact that Clara is a mule, and people generally like songs about mules."  

updated 5 years ago