Music Review by Lou Wigdor
the singer-songwriter world, performers just naturally write about
themselves. It’s expected. It’s the coin of the realm,” remarked
one of that world’s most gifted practitioners, Richard Shindell.
Apart from an occasional musing about his own romantic life (typically
in the second person, e.g., You Again), Shindell has
consistently focused his energies outward—notably
on a varied cast of characters that he creates and inhabits from a
first-person-singular point of view. These characters live and breathe
with vitality in Shindell’s latest album, Courier (Signature
Sounds), a live concert recording that collects some of the more
memorable portraits from his first four albums.*
(The album also includes other Shindell stand-bys like Are
You happy Now? and Transit as well as covers by Lowell
George and Shindell’s fellow Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen.)
In Courier, Shindell transforms himself into a military courier, a truck driver, a Civil War widow, an immigration officer and his charge (a Latino fisherman), a Civil War recruit, and the venerable Mary Magdalen. “In performance, I’m not acting; what I do is more like an author reading a short story, but with the added influence of the music and its cadences,” Shindell explained in an interview last March. “It’s more like I just imagine the character, the setting, and the story. And it’s only for three or four minutes. I get in and get out quickly. There’s an economy to the whole thing.”
That economy reveals Shindell as an artist of uncommon intuitive gifts, whose verbal brush strokes strategically conjure up more with less. In Reunion Hill (track # 7 on Courier), his masterful lament for Joan Baez, Shindell recalls the pain of personal loss in war not by chewing the scenery or overpainting it, but by evoking associations with unremarkable objects and actions. His Civil War widow, ten years later, remembers that ragged army that limped across these fields of mine—not through a macabre body count, but through the everyday objects that the soldiers left behind:
And she reflects on the loss of her husband not through the particulars of her suffering or the deprivations of war, but through her evanescent last glimpse of the man as he walks across the valley and disappears into the trees.
Shindell’s songs impart visual impressions and additional storyline evidence in support of moral subtexts that lie just below the surface. He never polemicizes though, instead allowing his listeners to draw their own inferences (even though those conclusions are pretty much set-ups). That engages them in more active involvement with the song, adding greater moral force and emotional resonance to Shindell’s message and the listening experience.
On the surface, Shindell bears little resemblance to his characters, but if you take the time, you’ll likely detect at least an isthmus of common ground. “There’s almost always a connection,” he insisted. Reflecting on the road-weary truck driver in Courier’s second track, The Next Best Western, Shindell confessed, “I’ve never driven or even set foot in a truck, but I do spend a great deal of time on the road far away from my home and family.”** So Shindell can sing with more than token empathy for his exhausted teamster, who in the middle of the night craves deliverance not via the preacher breathing fire from his dashboard but at the next station of the hospitality industry.
Like many of Shindell’s songs, Next Best Western teems with religious language and imagery that reflects its author’s seminarian past. (He attended Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan.) Hence, the truck driver’s prayer: Show a little mercy for this weary sinner and deliver me to . . . we all by now know where. In The Ballad of Mary Magdalen (track # 12) we learn that Mary made the enlightened choice because it was His career or mine. And in what has become a coda at Shindell’s concerts (Courier included), the song-tale Transit chronicles an unwitting secular pilgrimage of irate rush hour motorists down the New Jersey Turnpike and into the cleansing waters of the Delaware Water Gap.
On occasion, Shindell digs deep into eschatological terrain. Beyond the Iron Gate on his Reunion Hill album is ostensibly about an elderly man who leaves the grounds of his rest home and experiences an epiphany upon busting loose. But the song works on a deeper level. When I asked Shindell whether getting beyond the iron gate wasn’t about transcending the limits imposed by the ego, his reply was even terser than his writing: “The song is about death,” he responded with solemnity. But it’s also, I suspect, about Shindell’s own faith, presumably informed by some degree of metaphysical insight:
Back inside the iron gate, I was determined to resolve a secular puzzlement of my own about an uncharacteristic Shindell song. Waiting for the Storm on his Somewhere Near Patterson disc threw me because of its incongruity with the rest of Shindell’s work. It’s a sketch about a working class Floridian who, anticipating a big-time hurricane, sends his wife and kids to safety, sets his furniture out in the yard, and hunkers down in his rocking chair.
What’s different about this song from the others? The music fits half the situation and contradicts the other half. Propelled by Larry Campbell’s virtuoso mandolin playing, the tune sports an up-tempo, whistle-while-you-work vitality. The guy’s taken care of business, he’s made his preparations, but guess what—this deeply troubled redneck’s children may soon be fatherless. If you find such contradictory juxtapositions intriguing, you might take intellectual pleasure in Waiting for the Storm. But for Shindell, the song is uncharacteristic, because he never intentionally trades his moral compass for intellectual conceits. In that, he is much like his hero, Tom Waits, who almost always manages to treat his characters (and they are a colorful lot) with at least a kernel of respect. So here, according to Shindell, is how the song took shape: “Initially, it was supposed to be about a macho guy in Florida whose response to a hurricane was to tough it out by staying put in the path of the storm. Along the way, I got bored with him and did what I could to make him more vulnerable. The character turned into a hybrid.”
One last item on the agenda. Conspicuously absent from Courier (with the exception of one track) is the energizing musical presence of multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell. For the last half decade, Campbell has been nothing less than Shindell’s musical alter ego. (He has recently devoted more and more of his energies to the Bob Dylan band.) Together, Shindell and Campbell have produced one strong album, Somewhere Near Patterson, and one indispensable one, Reunion Hill. They have also served up some thrilling concerts that have gained national press attention. Not only is Campbell a masterful arranger and gifted improviser on a ton of instruments—violin, mandolin, bouzouki, and electric, acoustic and pedal steel guitars—he is a startlingly inventive composer of instrumental passages that complement and energize Shindell’s songs. Campbell’s concise sonic statements share the laconic spirit of Shindell’s words. And their musical buoyancy adds just the right kinetic gloss to Shindell’s predominantly serious themes. It would be tragic, especially for Shindell’s future recordings, if the two were to go separate ways, but it should be Shindell’s end of the bargain to inspire Campbell more regularly with new material that only Richard Shindell can write.
|©2002 by Lou Wigdor||
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