Richard Shindell

Sparrows Point Reviews

Goldmine

The release of Richard Shindell's debut album represents both a culmination of certain trends in the flok-based singer-songwriter genre of the past decade or so and also the opening of a new chapter for the music. Since the folk revival of the late 1950s and early '60s declined in the '70s and returned its adherents to their own resources, generations of songwriters who learned from Bob Dylan to use their craft as a means of artistic expression have honed their skills largely out of the popular music spotlight.

One effect of this is that those skills have had a greater chance to develop before gaining widespread exposure. Part of the reason, for example, that Suzanne Vega was such a polished performer with such an impressive repertoire when her first album was released in 1985 was that she'd been working on that presentation and those songs at least since 1982.

Another effect is that, freed from immediate commercial pressure, songwriters have turned to more arcane, academic subjects and more indirect approaches in their songs rather than producing the immediately accessible lyrics demanded by pop consumption.

This is a double-edged sword, of course, since it is as likely to intrigue as it is to put off listeners. Like such writers from the New York Fast Folk scene as David Massengill and Jack Hardy (who sings harmony on one of the songs), Shindell contributes his share of allusive, referential songs on Sparrows Point, songs that no doubt go over well at the "Thursday night songwriters meetings" he thanks in the CD booklet.

"The Courier," for example, recounts the journey of a mesenger who seems to span centuries from the Middle Ages to World War I as he travels. "On a Sea of Fleur-de-Lis" is full of obscure Catholic imagery touching on "Mother Mary" and witches imprisoned in old trees. "Sparrows Point" recounts the tale of one William Taylor, "born in twenty-four," who knocks around in the Depression until he finds himself "well-employed" as a soldier in World War II.

If such songs work for listeners, it may well be not because of the subjects, but because of Shindell's compelling, sonorous baritone, his tuneful, acoustic-guitar-based music, with its occassional touches of country, and his gift for lyrics. Lines like "Don't just stare/I mean it really/Hear my prayer/I give it freely" evince an excellent rhyming ability, while a comment such as "We laughed when nothing was funny, but how we wept when nothing was left" has a concision and close observation that does what song lyrics do best - telegraph a story and all its feelings in a few words.

These songs are impressive demonstrations of Shindell's ability to tackle a variety of song topics, yet he is at his best not when he is producing a well-written research project, but when he is writing about concerns that sound closer to home, and it is this that marks him as the most impressive new voice to emerge in folk music so far in this decade. "The Kenworth of My Dreams" tells the story of a man who buys his own truck and in so doing comes face to face with his ultimate goal in life, only to realize what he's had to sacrifice for it. It's an object lesson of rare sophistication, told in simple, but effective language.

But best of all is the album's lead-off track, "Are You Happy Now?," a sarcastic but pained account of a man whose lover leaves him on Halloween. He reacts by smashing her pumpkin on the floor, but only then discovers the predicament she's left him in: "What was I supposed to do/But to sit there in the dark/I was amazed to think that you/Could take the candy with you too." In the morning, after the enraged trick-or-treaters have trashed his lawn, he disingenuously wishes her and her new lover well ("I still maintain that he's a bum/But it's your money, have some fun") and dedicates the song to her.

It isn't just those brilliantly cutting lyrics, it's also the combination of humor and scorn with which Shindell sings that marks him as a major musical figure. Other songs, such as "Memory of You" and "You Again," also suggest that his romantic scalpel can be exquisitely sharp.

Add it all up and you have an album among the best of the year, written and performed by a unique talent who sums up the best of the folk movement in the last decade and suggests where it can go from here.

by William Ruhlmann

updated: 9 years ago