Top albums of 2011, #8: Blue Divide (1994), Richard Shindell

[I can’t find a YouTube video of the studio version of this song, so clicking on the image will take you to GrooveShark in a new tab.]

I’ve been a big Richard Shindell fan since I listened to Cry Cry Cry, a one-off collaborative album of covers created by Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Shindell.  His songs on that album, particularly Cold Missouri Waters and Shades of Gray, caught my imagination and sent me off to get his Reunion Hill album.  That was on my 2009 top ten, followed by his Sparrows Point in 2010, and now Blue Divide.

Why Shindell?  Mostly because he is such a consummate storyteller.  Almost without exception his songs are little plays, generally told in the first person.  They are tiny but crystal-clear windows on the lives of other people.  I don’t know another songwriter who does this.

In this selection, Fishing, he sings the part of an INS interrogator, trying to persuade an illegal immigrant to disclose the names of other immigrants in exchange for his own safety.  The song is described better than I can do it by Glenn McDonald in his review of Reunion Hill:

The officer, whose monologue fills most of the song, vacillates between threatening to go after the deportee’s family and friends, and reminiscing, prompted by reading in the man’s file that he’s a fisherman, about the summer fishing trips he and his friends used to go on when they were younger. I can’t tell whether he’s changing topics deliberately, in order to unnerve the man, or whether his attention simply wanders, and if he’s doing it deliberately I can’t tell whether he thinks he’s drawing on the common experience of fishing in order to get the man to drop his guard, or is trying to intimidate and belittle him, emphasizing their different social stations, by contrasting his leisurely summer vacations with the deportee’s low-wage hard-labor. In the final verse the deportee finally responds, but even then all three possibilities seem plausible.

[Buy on amazon.com or on amazon.co.uk, though for some reason all Shindell’s CDs seem to be rather expensive.]

Next time: an underrated album by a truly great band — one of only two non-folk albums on this year’s list.

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15 responses to “Top albums of 2011, #8: Blue Divide (1994), Richard Shindell

  1. Pingback: Top albums of 2011, #9: CSN (1977), Crosby Stills and Nash | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  2. I’m pretty sure I mentioned James Keelaghan in a response to your earlier request for singer/songwriter recommendations. He wrote “Cold Missouri Waters”; if you haven’t sampled his work yet, I’d suggest starting with the album “My Skies”; there are also tons of YouTube videos.

  3. Irving, you did indeed mention Keelaghan, but at the time your recommendation was rather swallowed in the flood. Now that I have the touchstone of Cold Missouri Waters to start from, I will go and hunt him down. Thanks for the recommendation. (Oh, and thanks for being the first person to have commented on any of these posts!)

  4. Thanks for doing this series. It’s fun, so far none of the three albums are ones that I am familiar with. I have heard “Coyote” before — the fantastic version in The Last Waltz but I haven’t listened to any Richard Shindell, despite having seen his name mentioned in various places.

    That is a very good song and performance. Though I have to disagree with the quoted review, I don’t think that the interrogator’s references to fishing are ambiguous or a digression. They seem like a clear extension of the other comments. For example, when the interrogator says, “He used to say that God rewards us for letting the small ones go / Well maybe, but I don’t know.” That seems like an obvious re-statement of both his threat and the offer of lenience in exchange for testimony.

    I was a little bit disappointed, when I listened, that it wasn’t as open-ended as that review suggested, but instead I would be inclined to compliment the song for how neatly structured it is. It covers a lot of territory in a relatively small number of lines, and does so by being very efficient with the language. For example the second line that I quoted, “Well maybe, but I don’t know.” is masterful.

    One other, non-related comment. I recently came across a British (Irish) folk-singer that I like and wanted to mention to you. Christy Moore isn’t a new face, he started as a member of Planxty in the 70s, but he’s still active, and very good. It doesn’t look like he writes many songs, but he’s excellent as an interpreter.

    Here, for example, is him performing a Dave Goulder song. Here is him doing “Fairytale of New York.”

    I think he’s unusually good at being able to find the dramatic core of a song and deliver that in his performance. That allows him to do sentimental material without being either melodrama or trite, which is harder to do than it sounds.

  5. Thanks, NickS!

    On Fishing, I suppose that being told in advance that a certain song is ambiguous is an invitation to read one of the candidate interpretations as The Right One! All I can tell you is that to me, the text and the performance seem to leave open each of McDonald’s interpretations.

    I absolutely agree with you about the economy of great songwriting: the best writers seem to be able to condense a world of meaning into a single short phrase. Dar Williams is particularly brilliant at this: a line as simple as “Then we forgot what plants are altogether” in the song February is so evocative in context that it almost hurts to listen to.

    Finally, thanks for the Christy Moore recommendation. I listened to both the YouTube videos, and they are both excellent performances. I’ll obtain a compilation album (since his career has been so long it would be silly to pick any one mainline album) and see what grabs me.

  6. All I can tell you is that to me, the text and the performance seem to leave open each of McDonald’s interpretations.

    You’ve listened to the song more than I have, I’m happy to believe that it’s one of those songs that becomes more open ended as you listen to it. I am still inclined to hear the comments about fishing as primarily bullying, but I shouldn’t say that’s the only interpretation. Listening to it again I was struck by the fact that the line, “well maybe . . .” is repeated in two different verses. I’d noticed it as fantastic line the second time it occurred, but I hadn’t caught the echo of the previous verse which does add to the feeling of digression and return.

    I’m also curious to know what you make of the final verse where the person being interrogated responds. That verse confuses me somewhat. It’s particularly interesting given Shindell’s introduction in which he talks about need to add a voice other than the interrogators. What’s odd is that the final verse doesn’t appear to end the story — we don’t know what the fisherman chooses to do.

    The music and the mood of the song leave us wanting the fisherman to resist, and to not give names. Listening to it I would expect, given the direction of the song that the final verse would offer some statement of resistance — at the very least some statement of narrative resistance; that the interrogator does have power and authority but he still doesn’t have the power to say that the choice is between being a “Good citizen or poor campesino.” But the final verse doesn’t really respond to that. It feels like it does, just because it’s the final verse of the song, I find myself wanting to understand it as offering resistance, but I’m not sure that it does.

    A few more digressive thoughts. Something about Shindell’s stage manner and performance remind me of Bruce Cockburn. I’m not sure why I say that, looking around a bit this video captures some of the similarity that I’m thinking of. It is, in part, that they are both very precise in their language and comments on stage and both somewhat private and internal as performers. More metaphorically I would say that both of them come across as having an idea of the song in their head which is very specific and somewhat independent of the performance. For some people you might say that the song exists as it’s being performed — that the physical experience of playing the music, singing the words, and making the sounds is what gives life to the song. For Shindell and Cockburn they’re fluent and comfortable in the performances but it feels like there’s a coexistence between the song as it’s being performed and the song in memory, as an emotional object.

    Also, after my last comment I started trying to think of songs which interleave conversation with the narrative of the song. I feel like it’s something that I have heard done, but it’s rare. The examples that I could think of are Sauerkraut (Cleaning the Refrigerator) (lyrics only), a great song that I haven’t thought of in years. Gil Scott-Heron’s fantastic Small Talk at 125th And Lenox (.mp3). Suzy And Maggie Roche’s cover of “Clothes Line Saga” which took me a surprisingly long time to think of considering that I’ve just been listening to it (also, on the topic of ambiguity, I dislike that video because it feels wrong to have specific images associated with a song that’s as slippery as that one). Finally, I suppose, I’d mention The Last Chance by Leon Rosselson which is long and dense and not casual listening but a masterpiece — a song which successfully wrestles with intense broad themes by rooting it in personal experience (and it was, I believe, written after and in response to a trip to Israel) .

    I’m glad you liked the Christy Moore. I just discovered him on a collection of Elvis Costello covers, of all place, and I’ve ordered a couple of his live albums, but they’re still making their way across the Atlantic. The one I’ve gotten so far is Live At Vicar Street which has some weaker tracks but definitely convinces me that he’s a fantastic performer.

  7. Pingback: Top albums of 2011, #5: Liege and Lief (1969), Fairport Convention | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  8. Pingback: Top albums of 2011: the final results | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  9. Just for the record (a couple of months on): having listened to it a dozen times, Christy Moore’s Ride On is my current favourite album, and looks a very good bet to make the 2012 top ten.

  10. I’m still really excited about Christy Moore. I’ve been listening to a lot of his music this year, and I keep buying more of his albums.

    Let’s see, I haven’t gotten into any of his early solo albums but I
    continue to like Live At Vicar Street very much, I also like
    Listen a great deal (his versions of, “Does This Train Stop on
    Merseyside” and “Duffy’s Cut” are both great and, as they say, well
    worth the price of the album. I also got a Moving Hearts collection
    which I’ve liked (highlight, :”Allende”). I was a little bit
    disappointed by Live At The Point which many people seem to
    think is his best live album. It’s good, but it doesn’t grab me as
    much as the later albums.

    I’m still a little mystified that I didn’t hear of him earlier. He’s
    fantastic, is exactly the sort of music that I like, and has been
    recording and performing for four decades. Why didn’t anybody tell me
    about him?

  11. The only reason I’m a bit cautious about Christy Moore is that the other album I have is Collection 1981-1991, but all the songs I like most from that are the ones taken from Ride On. Though to be fair I’ve only listened to Collection once — maybe the other songs will grow on me more.

  12. Hmm, no. I am listening through it again, and Mystic Lipstick sounds really crass and 1980s in a bad way — like an attempt to cross over between folk and 80s pop, almost New Romantic. Not a good move. Whereas the whole Ride On album has an integrity and a conviction to it that this song painfully lacks.

  13. Looking at the allmusic discography their rankings make the 80s and early 90s look like a down period in his career. The only album in that time period that they rate highly is Christy Moore and the description of that album says

    “The album cover includes quotes from Irish music celebrities like Elvis Costello, Shane McGowan and Bono, describing Moore as the “greatest living Irishman” and the Irish equivalent to Woody Guthrie. These endorsements are true enough, but the album they promote proceeds to water down Moore’s greatness almost beyond recognition. On several tracks the predominant instrument is the synthesizer rather than the acoustic guitar.”

    So there was a reason that I started out with his most recent albums . . . But part of why I wanted to talk them up is the fact that they follow the collection and, therefore, aren’t represented, means that you won’t have heard them.

    I would note that allmusic describes Ride On as an album that is, “so good it can make his other good ones seem weak.” And on Live On Vicar Street which marked a return to performance after years off for health reasons (and was, presumably, an emotional step for Chrisy Moore) 4 of the 13 songs are from Ride On (and, FWIW, it looks like all 4 are from the first side of Ride On). So it looks like a good place to start.

  14. I’d add that all of the albums I’ve mentioned have weak tracks on them — songs where I feel like he’s reaching for an emotional impact rather than coming to it naturally, but the reason I keep wanting to hear more of him stuff is that the best tracks are just so unbelievably good, they’re powerful and subtle. They’re skillful performances that don’t feel like they’re trying to show off.

  15. Pingback: What I’ve been listening to in 2012 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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