Friday, August 21, 2009
Getting Hardy on my Shindell
Over the past month or so, I have been trying to digest the most recent albums by Richard Shindell and Jack Hardy, entitled Not Far Now and Rye Grass, respectively (and NFN and RG hereafter). They didn't go down as easily as I thought that they would. Initially, the glossiness of NFN stuck in my craw as irritably as RG's rhythmic woodenness and occasionally overwrought verbiage did. But after multiple listens of several songs at a time and, over the past couple days, listening to each in its entirety, I think I'm ready to reflect more positively...much more positively in the case of Jack's newest.
Let's start with NFN. I haven't gone back to the recent Shindell albums in some time now so, in a way, I feel like more of a stranger to his music than I did, say, when his live album, Courier (2002), came out. NFN feels familiar, like I've heard it before, but that's because it doesn't sound too substantially different from Vuelta (2004) or Somewhere Near Patterson (2000) or Reunion Hill (1997). As with those albums, the sound is folk-rock, with an emphasis on the folk. No distorted guitar, nothing especially uptempo. The hooks lie in the melodies, sometimes in the refrains, and, on one song, "Gethsemane Goodbye," in both.
Thematically, nothing more holds this album together than anything on his previous albums. Over his past few albums, Shindell has specialized in open-ended character portraits and unusual and provocative settings. The opening song, "Parasol Ants" features "a well-known local hood," busted, lying flat on the ground, as a line of ants marches past. "Mariana's Table" is the subtlest song on the album, with "trucks hauling wheat grain" roaring through Buenos Aires, interrupting a quiet scene about a woman, Mariana, selling her empanadas and beer. There is the hint of conflict, of political frustration just beneath the surface. He reports on his website that "Get Up Clara" is about a mule, but when I first listened to it, it seemed to be addressed to the singer's lover. Silly me, I had thought that he was working the old blues tradition of referring to his lover as a beast of burden. Since he once laid down a great version of "Sitting on Top of the World," I didn't put it past him. Anyway, "Get Up Clara" and "Gethsemani Goodbye" and "Balloon Man" are the best tracks on the album, along with Dave Carter's "The Mountain." I would rank it slightly below recent efforts, but I imagine that the real Richard Shindell fans will eat it up. I'll stick with his live album and, maybe, Patterson, or maybe his album of covers, South of Delia (2007), when I need a Shindell fix. "I still maintain that he's a bum," who's at his best at his most objectionable ("Are You Happy Now?" which reminds me of Loudon Wainwright III) and his most mysterious ("Transit" which reminds me of Flannery O'Connor).
So, what does it all add up to? A skilled craftsman working his craft. Nothing more. As usual with Richard Shindell, his newest album offers solid songwriting, smooth singing, and glossy production and arrangements. I never really get the feeling that there is any larger message to this guy's music, and that's not a criticism. Or, at least, it wouldn't be if the songs featured anything particularly uplifting or life-affirming. But so much of this guy's music in full of the soft fatalism that so many singer-songwriters indulge in. It's especially clear on the couple of examples of lyrics that reach out a bit; there's simply no reflection in the music of the emotions suggested by the words. This proves Stephin Merritt's comment that there isn't enough information contained in songs to signal the meaning of a performance to a listener. Artists like Richard Shindell verify the truth of that claim. In "State of the Union," for example, there is a quiet anger in the lyrics that simply isn't reflected in the music or arrangements or singing. To me, that's a sign of someone so middle-class (not to mention resigned to the capitalist world order) that he doesn't even realize how weak his politics really seem. On one recent listening to NFN, I had hoped that the Lilliputian story of "Parasol Ants" might reveal a broader, more originally expressed political message hidden in the album. But I don't think so. Interesting to note that he recorded this thing in Buenos Aires at a place called Amalgamated Balladry.
Still, there is such a thing as craftsmanship, and Richard Shindell has got it. Listen to NFN if you want to hear well-constructed contemporary folk songs, marked by carefully controlled singing and staid arrangements. Since I have a taste for this sort of thing, I'm sure I'll return to it from time to time, despite my more intellectual misgivings.
Jack's RG also feels familiar. It feels like part two of a saga of country music albums begun with Bandolier (2002). The arrangements are similar: guitars, dobro, bass, fiddle, a little piano, no drums. And, like Bandolier, RG improves with repeat listenings. The melodies and words and arrangements blur comfortably within each other, and Jack's weathered voice is appropriately cradled by his harmony singers who, on this record, happen to be his daughters. Jack's technical vocal proficiency isn't at Richard Shindell's level, but he's got more soul and a better understanding of his gifts than I bet Richard will ever develop. Really, his voice hit me the first time I ever heard him, at the Postcrypt Coffeehouse in the spring of 2000.
RG is Jack Hardy's 19th or 20th album, and I think it's one of the better ones; in the top half, let's say. In its thematic coherence and suitably austere arrangements, it may even be top 5. As he's gotten older, that weathered voice of his has deepened, its cracks combining with the man's personal history--his brother was in one of the Twin Towers when it collapsed and, over 30 years before, he was deeply involved in radical politics on the University of Hartford campus--to evoke world-weariness and political despair. The album opens with the song that best evokes that meaning: "Soundtrack," which overviews recent political issues and events with various references to pop and folk songs of years past. The refrain features his daughters' harmonies: "bye bye American pie / bye bye Blackbird." Later on, there's "Ask Questions." And, in between and thereafter, there are a bunch of above average country songs.
But while Bandolier was little more than an album of country songs (and at least three great ones: "The Moon Is Full," "Autumn," and "Everything's Bigger in Texas"), on RG, there are darker things going on. There is a disillusionment that, like Ani Difranco's, is earned. RG may have some good country songs on it, but it is quietly and brilliantly an album about how and whether people will face down the evil in their midst. "Soundtrack" suggests that "There's still time to lock up your daughters," and its use of older folk and pop songs helps evoke an innocence that Jack surely knows didn't define the era that they're usually associated with. "Crime of the Century" squeezes in references to the touring life and illegal downloads, while quietly suggesting that the real crime is the political disengagement in that lifestyle: "You headed out to save the world / wound up drunk and chasing girls / buddy can you spare a dime / for the crime of the century?" The title track is quiet and hypnotic in its evocation of an American south terrorized by the Klan and argues that we don't "Ask Questions" enough about that facet of America's past. "Prisoner"'s "And there's no one to ask questions / and there's no one to reply / to ask why i was taken / on the fourth day of July" evokes the same themes. Meanwhile, "If I Were to Lay Me Down" and "Kansas" and "Now and Then" are stark and beautiful, with Jack sometimes using his higher vocal registers to evoke restlessness and discontent.
I don't usually think of Jack Hardy's albums as having thematic coherence, but RG does, and the more I've listened to it, the more I've come to admire it. And, while it isn't as listenable as some of his more recent stuff, it's also a bit more ambitious in its own subtle way. I like it more than Richard Shindell's NFN; the songs and the voice have more depth than most of the stuff on NFN, and the austere arrangements take on a haunting, mysterious quality that Shindell can only approach (and never really does on NFN).
Jack Hardy's stock-in-trade is songs. I find that his focus on songwriting sometimes results in unimpressive albums. As I've said to Matt Winters in the past, his albums can be hard to listen to, because the instrumentation becomes monotonous over a dozen songs. Occasionally, an arrangement will nail the song perfectly: the guitar parts on "Porto Limon" from 1984's The Cauldron and the title track of Through (1991), the male harmonies on the title track of White Shoes (1982), the Roches' harmonies on "The Tailor," from The Mirror of My Madness (1976), and the slow-but-solid beat and lead guitar lines on "Johnny's Gone" and haunting mandolin part on "111th Pennsylvane," both from Civil Wars (1994). At their best, his recordings are extraordinary: two of the highlights are "The Tinker's Coin" from Landmark (1982) and "Eclipse" from Omens (2000). His best albums combine great songwriting with consistently good melodies and arrangements--The Mirror of My Madness (1976), Landmark (1982), Civil Wars (1994), Omens (2000), and Noir (2007) are my top 5, in chronological order. This year's Rye Grass deserves mention as a great one too. It's the first album of his I've heard that I've enjoyed a lot, in spite of its all-too-consistent arrangements. Why? Because the music, the lyrics, the voice, and the thematic consistency add up to something; it's not just a collection of songs. Whether he meant to or not, Jack Hardy has made a serious album of folk and country songs about a decaying United States of America, about how hard it is to speak out against the injustices therein, and how necessary it is to do so.