Claudia Schmidt,
New Whirled Order
(Red House, 2014)

With New Whirled Order singer-songwriter Claudia Schmidt returns to the St.Paul-based folk label Red House, which played a large role in her early career. (A retrospective on her Red House years was issued two years ago as Bend in the River: Collected Songs; see my review in this space of 28 July 2012.) Longtime listeners -- I first heard Schmidt in a club in Chicago in the late 1970s -- will recognize the sound: a fusion of folk, jazz and classic pop in varying shades.

One might say that Schmidt, born and raised in Michigan, now living in Minneapolis, sounds something like what Joni Mitchell would have if she'd remained on the folk circuit. Frankly, I'd rather listen to Schmidt anytime. For one thing, in terms of sheer talent and artistry, Schmidt -- albeit a whole lot less famous -- is surely Mitchell's aesthetic equal. Further, she's more congenial company, which is to say she seems to be not just interesting and intelligent but friendly and accessible, someone with whom you could have a splendid conversation over coffee.

Order consists of 13 original songs, two of them co-writes, that address the questions of late maturity, in (mostly) acoustic settings and impeccable production. Her lyrics showcase her keen but unpretentious literacy, and her singing voice is distinctive and affecting. Love plays a large role in the songs, but not in any hackneyed way; it's the kind of love one who is fully adult experiences and for which, in mortality's ever more uncertain light, one is especially appreciative. And yes, death is the other subject. Schmidt's mother Jane, to whom she was close, is the subject of the last two cuts, including the brief but moving closer, "Jane's A-Round." "Nothing" views the world's corruption through the tiny corner of safety she has found in a quiet, unchaotic privacy. I don't know if you can call this a "protest song," but if so, it's one like none I've heard.

There's a kind of humor, too, for example in the darkly comic "Strong Woman Has a Bad Day Polka" with its wry yet oddly unself-pitying refrain, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you wish that you were dead." One thinks here of Richard Thompson's comparably mordant sensibility. I take it that Schmidt means there's not much room for lazy sentimentality when you get to a certain age. The cut that follows, "Out Here," with something of the resonance of an old hymn, seeks -- with clear eyes and no false cheer -- persistence and strength in the face of tragedy and impermanence.

In the end, art and spirit triumph, if uneasily and with no guarantee. Schmidt is a wise woman, and the truths New Whirled Order speaks are fierce and hard to shake. It's good to have her back.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 March 2014

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