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Koch Records, 2004

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Holly Lebowitz-Rossi

The Big Muddy

Folk artist Richard Shindell sees big stories in small moments

I am a registered Democrat, consider myself "progressive," and I'm a divinity school graduate who in 1991 marched in a Washington, D.C., anti-war rally, my "No Blood for Oil" T-shirt gleaming white and brand new on my back. I am also the wife of an Army captain who returned last spring from 13 months in the Middle East as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I threw away that T-shirt a few years ago, and when my husband Rob was sent to Iraq, I discovered phrases like "the military wives' group" creeping into my conversations. I couldn't shake the feeling that places I used to consider "home"like liberal politicswere no longer, while the new places that had been forced into my lifelike the Armyweren't a good fit for me either. I felt ideologically homeless. What a mess.

The artist who reached me the most during that dark period was Richard Shindell, whose latest album, Vuelta, was released in August. Shindell is ok with the mess. He is a storyteller and an observer. A one-time seminarian, he doesn't write about religion or politics per se, but he acutely communicates through his songs an awareness of forces in the universe greater than himself or any of his characters. He is a writer as I wish I could be, striking precisely at the emotional heart of a person's individual story and giving voice to ambiguity, confusion, and strugglewhich felt last year like the watchwords of my faith.

Shindell's eye for both human frailty and strength is sharp in this new album, his fifth studio recording. Set down in his adopted home of Buenos Aires, Argentina (he was born and raised in New Jersey), the album has Latin musical flares and even a song in Spanish, a self-deprecating love song about an English speaker's struggle with a foreign language. The narrative arc of the album, which begins with a song about a woman whose husband is leaving at dawn for war and ends with a father's lullaby to a newborn child, speaks to the experience of being carried along life's current.

One of the triumphs of the record is the very first song, "Fenario." I couldn't listen to the track right away; it hit a little too close to home. As Shindell has done so well on previous albums, he manages here to get inside a woman's life for the five-minute span of the song.

"The Bonnie Lass of Fenario" is an old Scottish folk song, which both Joan Baez and Judy Collins recorded to some acclaim. The last verse of Shindell's version, which alludes to the same mythical battle, is a quote from "Break of Day" by the metaphysical poet John Donne. Such rich texturing is typical of Shindell's songs, yet they rarely lose their emotional immediacy. Rob left at 5 A.M. on Valentine's Day for a war that we wereand aredeeply confused about. (The third verse in particular seems to brush up against the current crisis. "Brave my love, but false the king / False his wars, and false his dawn / Damn the gray that gains the sky / And damn the sun, the king's cold eye.") The song captures such a familiar feelingthe hope that the dawn won't come, that he'll be all right, that the time will pass quickly. The military spouse has to acknowledge that war, like so much else, is beyond our control.

I gravitated next toward "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," Shindell's version of the Pete Seeger classic. While Seeger's version has always struck me as lyrically rich but musically simple, Shindell homes in on the anger in the song, the way a soldier feels when he's made to follow a "damn fool" who's leading him to certain doom. The brilliance of the song is in its narrator's helplessness as he records the dialogue between the misguided captain and the assertive sergeant, leaving the rank-and-file out of the conversation altogether as they observe the struggle for leadership and its grim results.

The anger that flashes in "Fenario" and fuels "Waist Deep" peaks there, though. The middle of the album is a series of snapshots, some simple, others that linger and deepen their subjects. "Hazel's House" is one of the most direct songs I've ever heard, an uncomplicated ode to a woman whose crumb cake and attention are warm blankets of comfort and welcome. However, while the simplicity of "Hazel's House" is something to wrap yourself up in, I found that "The Island" errs a bit too much on the plain side. I suppose the song is about our inability to control nature, the fact that despite our super-developed resort culture, the cliffs erode and the ocean has its way. An interesting point about impermanence, but too platitudinous for Shindell at his best. The song leaves us without a lingering image, like Hazel waiting for you as you climb her front steps.

Shindell returns to his greatest strength in "Che Guevara T-Shirt," in which he manages to tell a very large storyabout a stowaway coming to Americain a very small way, by focusing on how a photo of a true love can both reassure and terrify. I heard Shindell perform this song, which is a bit unusual in form. The song has no chorusinstead, it's an ever-building series of verses that give the impression of a large ship slicing through the ocean with increasing speed.

One of Shindell's most noted earlier songs, "Fishing," crafted a story about an immigration officer interrogating and manipulating an illegal immigrant, threatening deportation if the man does not divulge information about where other family members are hiding. Listening to the end of "Che Guevara T-Shirt," I felt the chill of "Fishing" haunt this new character as he too faces an interrogator brimming with vague threat. It's another testament to the fullness of Shindell's storytelling.

Shindell's previous albums have shown his fondness for recurring themes, most notably trucking, and Vuelta is no exception. There are two "bird songs" on the album that raise listeners' eyes upward. "There Goes Mavis" is a quaint and sweet story about a little girl at the beach who wants to see her orange canary Mavis fly free from her cage. The story is doubly powerful, because it is told from the perspective of a parent who is building a sandcastle with his or her sons while Mavis' drama unfolds around them. The family tends busily to the castle, and to their own lives, oblivious to anyone else's problems until Mavis literally lands on their driftwood flagpole.

The song follows the story as a crowd gathers and the little girl struggles against her mother's efforts to re-cage Mavis. The mother is no doubt right to say that the bird would not survive in the wild. But isn't risky freedom better than safe imprisonment? Summarized baldly in this way, the scenario sounds bathetic, yet in Shindell's hands it is charming. The song offers no lyric judgment of whether Mavis chose well or poorly, only channels the narrator's observation, "there goes Mavis." But the music tells a different story, with tension resolving as the bird flies off "on the long horizon" into a soaring yet still fragile phrase.

The other bird song, "So Says the Whipporwill," also takes up images of freedom from imprisonment, whether literal or figurative. When I interviewed Shindell a while back, he said that the song was a tribute to his friend, folk legend Dave Carter, who died of a heart attack at age 49 in the summer of 2002. (Carter's widow, Tracy Grammer, plays violin on the track.) The song talks about suddennessthe line "The change could happen any day" opens each versebut it also talks about the courage required to actually make a change, the leap of faith we all need to take in order to live each day to the fullest.

"The Last Fare of the Day," Shindell's 9/11 tribute song, ignores politics and anthem-like statements in favor of a picture of a taxi driver who clings to what he knows of his city while recovering from the trauma of that terrible day. His fare, a couple at first numb with grief but, months later, giddy with their newborn baby, can trust the cab driver to bring them home.

And, unpredictable as the journey might be, we can trust Shindell to do the same.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a writer and a folk junkie in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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