In common with many like-minded admirers of seriously quality songwriting, I first encountered New-Jersey-born Richard Shindell’s work through his mid-90s album Reunion Hill, and in particular its title song, a heartfelt portrait of an American Civil War widow. Joan Baez recorded this classic song in 1997 for her Gone From Danger album, together with two more of Richard’s compositions (Money For Floods and Fishing), following which she invited Richard to join her on tour later that year. This alone should have earned Richard sufficient profile to ensure his status as one of the essential contemporary singer-songwriters, but instead, for some reason, he’s remained something of a cult figure, a “songwriter’s songwriter”, rather than breaking through into mainstream acceptance. In the years since the Baez tour, he’s not only recorded a further four albums of original songs but also turned in distinctive versions of covers of other writers’ material, notably on the album South Of Delia (2007) and in collaboration with Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky (on the 1998 project Cry Cry Cry), teaming up once again with Lucy only last year for the Tomorrow You’re Going project.
Richard’s forte has always been the story-song, and while Reunion Hill has proved of special durability (most recently it was covered by Marion Fleetwood with The Jigantics on their Seconds Out album), other Shindell records have provided further key examples of his unerring ability to adopt different personas and credibly voice their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. His latest bunch of songs is given its recorded première here on Careless. Recorded both in upstate New York and his adopted home of Argentina, it’s a full-blooded affirmation of the value of well-crafted storytelling with strong characterisation and of universal import and application. Its production values are typically meticulous, with each shading of the lyrics finding a natural counterpart in the carefully coordinated instrumental backdrops – no carelessness here!
Among other things, the settings provide evidence of Richard rediscovering the nuances of the electric guitar, with its wider sonic and dynamic range (not that his acoustic guitar work is ever less than stylish, I hasten to add), within the more luxurious textures conjured by his co-producer Greg Anderson and engineer/arranger Scott Petito, who head the roster of top-grade backing musicians engaged for the recording sessions, which include Larry Campbell, Joe Bonadio, Clifford Carter, Marc Shulman, Viktor Kraus and David Spinozza. They were encouraged to experiment and take risks in responding to the songs, and this looser, freer feel is apparent especially on songs such as twangsome opener Stray Cow Blues, the perversely jaunty, brassy Infrared, and the swaggering Atlas Choking with its clattering, collapsed-improv coda. Maybe on balance, I’m not always entirely convinced that this especially suits Richard’s stories, but it makes for an interesting exercise nevertheless, when taken more on its own terms. Where the electrified settings work more in keeping with the nature of the songs, as on Satellites, Before You Go and Abbie (the countrified rootsy tale of a pet’s fate), the end product is more satisfying.
For as far as the songwriting itself is concerned, the standard is uniformly high, with Richard exploring a typical breadth of themes and concerns ranging from direct expression of the personal experiences of his imagined characters (e.g. a lover’s self-recrimination on the shifting emotional sands of the title track, and a father’s reconciliation with his daughter on All Wide Open) to a more oblique blues-inflected encapsulation of an almost dystopian landscape (The Deer On The Parkway), while the familiar scenario of a vintage musical instrument being infused with the spirit of a previous owner has scarcely been better conveyed than on Your Guitar (I can envisage this song travelling far). The personal can also embrace the metaphysical; here Richard arguably saves the best for last, bringing the album to a close with Before You Go and the more celestial perspective of Satellites and The Dome. It might seem something of a back-handed compliment to consider the latter track a disc highlight, for it turns out to be the album’s lone cover, penned by Jeff Wilkinson and Brian Martin. But its spare yet powerful instrumental backdrop (a weird, ethereal drone of bowed electric guitar and keyboard) so brilliantly evokes the sense of wonder of sitting beneath a night sky and meditating on cosmic matters (indeed, The Dome has already been taken up by Pete Morton, such is the song’s lasting impact).
Richard’s three-years-in-the-making new album, anything but “careless”ly configured and managed, has sure been worth the wait, and contains several individual songs that are, I’m convinced, likely to be regarded as among his best creations.
Careless is out now via Continental Record Services