Richard Shindell,
South of Delia
(self-produced, 2007)

1965 was a pretty good year for popular music, I think. Lately, some artists -- for instance, The Kennedys, whose Songs of the Open Road I reviewed here on 23 September 2006 -- have been revisiting that particular moment, when folk-revival musicians were integrating modern compositions into what had been mostly traditional repertoires. The best of these efforts fused old and new in a way that could be just plain exhilarating.

The moment for that sort of thoughtful approach to pop song passed soon enough, crushed by what might be called the forces of rockist imperialism. Not to mention what would prove to be a plague of patience-testing, gratingly narcissistic singer-songwriters.

Richard Shindell, late of New York City, now of Buenos Aires, may be a singer-songwriter, but -- so I infer from scattered aural encounters -- he is not among the above-characterized. He's certainly an exceptional singer, possessed of a strong ear- and spirit-friendly baritone. He also possesses a formidable intelligence, evident in the sprawling literary narratives he writes and sets to ballad-like melodies. It's all intense and demanding, however, and not necessarily for the casual listener. While a very serious recording, South of Delia feels a bit more human-sized.

As with the Kennedys' most recent CD, this one does not consist literally of songs from 1965 and before, but it captures that feeling one used to experience when one put, say, a Tom Rush album on the stereo. Delia consists of 12 cuts, all by writers other than Shindell, one or two of them not ordinarily associated with folk-style music (e.g. Peter Gabriel, Josh Ritter), several folk by definition (composed, in other words, by tradition) and others whose work, or at least some of it, lends itself to austere, fundamentally acoustic arrangements.

An interpreter of the first rank, Shindell turns each song into a little jewel. I was startled to realize how compelling a composition is Bob Dylan's "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)," to which heretofore -- though I'd heard it -- I had paid effectively zero attention. Even more familiar material -- the Mississippi Sheiks' often-covered "Sitting on Top of the World" (done with no more than vocal and electric guitar) or the old-time frontier ballad "Texas Rangers" -- takes on unexpected dimensions of meaning in Shindell's treatment.

Other standouts include a skeletal "Born in the U.S.A.," rescued from the bombastic arrangement of the Bruce Springsteen original and freed to be the old-fashioned protest anthem it always was meant to be, plus Harry Robertson's understated, chillingly lovely indictment of the modern whaling industry, "The Humpback Whale," learned from the Nic Jones recording and propelled by Richard Thompson's electric guitar.

Shindell has some serious help here: besides Thompson, he has Eliza Gilkyson, Larry Campbell, Tony Trischka, Viktor Krauss and more in his corner. If nothing light-hearted is happening at that location, South of Delia is still a place, I suspect, that you'll be happy to visit.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

15 September 2007

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