Sunday, April 21, 2013

Protege Or Associate Of Suzanne Vega Wobbles On Her Own

The Good: Two truly great songs, Decent lyrics
The Bad: Musically unimaginative, Nothing stellar in the vocals
The Basics: Shawn Colvin illustrates she has the talent to chart some singles, but not much to back an album up with outside that.

Shawn Colvin is a musical artist that some part of me insists I ought to like. I am a fan of a number of female artists and all of my favorites are strong women who have great voices and a strong sense of how to assemble albums. Indeed, I've loved the lyrics of Heather Nova (check out my review of her perfect album, South, here!), the musical diversity of Sophie B. Hawkins (Timbre is reviewed here!), and the storytelling songs of Dar Williams (her debut, The Honesty Room is reviewed here!). In college, I loved the radio-friendly single "Sunny Came Home," which came from Shawn Colvin's album A Few Small Repairs. Having been surprised when my inner voice's insistence that I ought to enjoy Shawn Colvin came into conflict with my ear's insistence that her album A Whole New You (reviewed here!) was not grabbing me, I sought out A Few Small Repairs because I knew two of the tracks ("Sunny Came Home" and "You And The Mona Lisa") and enjoyed them both quite a bit.

Better than her other work, A Few Small Repairs still fails to sell me on the musical works of Shawn Colvin.

With twelve tracks clocking in at just over 51 minutes, A Few Small Repairs is a mediocre pop-rock or folk-rock album with two superlative tracks and a lot of filler around it. To her credit, Shawn Colvin's album is very much hers as all thirteen tracks are written or co-written by her, she sings all the songs, and on most tracks she plays an instrument. Colvin plays the acoustic guitar, clap master, piano and a trash can (not kidding!). The album is produced by John Leventhal, who is Colvin's most frequent collaborator (co-writer) on the album and with the number of instruments he plays it's worth asking if this ought to be an album credited to both Colvin and Leventhal.

Regardless, going with what is before us, A Few Small Repairs is a folk-rock album that made Shawn Colvin known for a while in the United States with her songs "Sunny Came Home" and "You And The Mona Lisa." What the two songs have in common and what they have in common with the rest of the album is the quality of the lyrics.

Colvin (and Leventhal) can write. Shawn Colvin tapped into something impressive with her ability to tell stories that resonated with mass culture with "Sunny Came Home." With its straightforward vocals and story, Colvin entranced audiences with her tale of how "Sunny came home with a list of names / She didn't believe in transcendence / It's time for a few small repairs she said / Sunny came home with a vengeance . . ." ("Sunny Came Home"). But more than telling a story, Colvin wisely tied the story to the protagonist's emotions and state of mind with the catchy refrain of "She says days go by I don't know why / I'm walking on a wire / I close my eyes and fly out of my mind / Into the fire" ("Sunny Came Home") which connected to the listeners. "Sunny Came Home" became an anthem for the disaffected who wanted to do something to snap out of that feeling of not belonging, or at least feel like they were not alone in the world. It's a great song. It's also the first track on the album.

What follows after the masterpiece and centerpiece is an album that is largely less distinctive. "Get Out Of This House" is a repetitive exhortation for the object of the song to leave (the title is repeated eleven times in the eight stanzas) and while it expresses that desire well, it does not explain the reason for it, though. Conversely, the track that follows that, "The Facts About Jimmy" tells a story well, but it doesn't have a melody. There's no hook, like the mandolin on "Sunny Came Home" that captures the listener and intrigues them.

Then there's "You And The Mona Lisa," a song with wonderful imagery that I honestly don't know what it's about. For those who have complained that my reviews are often too literal and that my tastes are very rooted in the concrete, I offer "You And The Mona Lisa" as a counterargument. It's a beautifully sung ditty, with a very simple rhyme scheme, and I've no idea what it means. I know I like it, though. It's artistic and surreal, but it's also a song I've heard for years and I'm no closer to deciphering meaning from.

That said, it is somewhat an exception for what follows on the album. After "You And The Mona Lisa," the songs are generally indistinct; only the repetitive and angry "I Want It Back" and the singsong "Nothin On Me" could be picked out as Colvin's from a line-up, even though I've listened to the album eight times now. The lyrics remain generally strong, though on "Wichita Skyline," she has "day/away" and "afternoon/moon" which are not my favorites.

The problem, then, becomes the music and vocals. The common element "Sunny Came Home" and "You And The Mona Lisa" share as far as vocals is that they illustrate that Shawn Colvin can sing. She has decent range on both songs, usually staying in the smoky alto range, though she goes higher at points. She does not challenge herself in that way on much of the rest of the album. Instead, she takes her safe range and she plays in it.

The net result it that the listener knows she has vocal abilities and range, but we end up disappointed to not hear that range used or explored. Instead, the album becomes stiflingly repetitive in terms of vocals. There's a subdued quality that the vocals take on in terms of range and volume. Indeed, on "Trouble," Colvin's voice sounds downright mousy with the rich instrumentals (it's a jazzier folk-pop song with keyboards and bass emphasized) nearly drowning out her singing.

Colvin is musically ambitious. A Few Small Repairs is filled with songs that have a number of musical instruments. Colvin wisely does not fall into the trap of being musically limited by confining herself to the standard guitar or piano-only folk-traps. No, the album is populated by mandolins, trash cans, clarinets, a flugelhorn, and a viola, among others. This creates a greater sense of musical diversity than most pop-rock or folk-rock albums.

Unfortunately, Colvin does not use the instruments to their fullest. The album has a lot of sounds, but it does not sound good. More accurately, it does not sound distinctive. Instead, outside "Sunny Came Home" and "You And The Mona Lisa," the songs are pretty generic in sound and quality, lacking in any melodies or harmonies that grab the listener and intrigue them.

Instead, the songs become a bland mixture of (generally) slow, poppy folk songs underpowered by Colvin's voice and underwhelmed by a lack of catchy tunes. The album quickly degenerates into an indiscinctive collection of songs more likely to put the listener to sleep than drive them to any form of action.

The net result of the album is another disappointment; an artists who highlights her potentials for greatness, then fails to live up to them. Shawn Colvin was a back-up singer for Suzanne Vega and while I've found Vega's works to be varied, I've at least found albums of hers I will recommend. I can't say that, yet, of Colvin.

The best tracks are "Sunny Came Home" and "You And The Mona Lisa," the rest fall short, though the least distinctive is the whispery "84,000 Different."

For other strong female artists, please visit my reviews of:
Live Acoustic - Sarah McLachlan
The Road Less Traveled (1-Disc Version) - Melissa Etheridge
Ophelia - Natalie Merchant


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing.

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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