Shawn Colvin “All Fall Down” (Nonesuch Records)
“Was it real and was it new, or just some lines you said before/
I trace our steps, I look for clues/ But I don’t know you anymore.”
That’s Shawn Colvin dissecting a failed relationship in the song
“I Don’t Know You,” and damned if the words don’t ring true for anyone
who has ever suffered the agony of a break up. But that is what Colvin
does, parses the delicate dance between the sexes then sets it to music.
She’s been doing it for close to 35 years.
A Native of South Dakota, Colvin got her first guitar at age ten.
By the late 70s she was honing her chops in bar bands, cover bands and
Western Swing bands, from San Francisco to Austin to New York City.
It was in New York that Colvin finally went solo. Rather than
covering songs by artists she admired, she began emulating heroes like
Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, by writing her own songs. That gamble paid
off when her debut album, Steady On, won a Grammy Award in 1990.
Shawn Colvin is the consummate singer-songwriter, but she’s
not very prolific. To date she has only released seven albums. In fact,
1994’s “Cover Girl,” featured Colvin, covering songs by writers as disparate
as the Police and Talking Heads to Greg Brown and Steve Earle.
By her 1996 release, the rootsy, A Few Small Repairs, Colvin had
won a couple more Grammys and catapulted to commercial success.
Her new effort, “All Fall Down,” continues her longtime
songwriting partnership with John Leventhal, but here the production
duties are handled by old pal, Buddy Miller.
Miller has been a secret weapon in the music industry for decades.
He has collaborated with everyone from Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin to T-Bone
Burnett and Robert Plant. Miller and Colvin first connected in the early 1980s.
The album opens with the title track, a jaunty crowd pleaser, that
pits circuitous acoustic guitar riffs with an insistent hand-clap rhythm. Colvin’s
lyrics remind us that even in the worst of times our personal triumphs are
right around the corner.
“Knowing What I Know Now,” originally popped up on a live acoustic
tape that served as Colvin’s informal demo before she scored her first record deal.
The spare arrangement of the live recording is supplanted with a countrified
fiddle that underscores this tale of heartbreak. The lyrics are poignant, but
resolute: “As much as you are in my heart, as much as I want you around/
I wouldn’t ask you to play that part, knowing what I know now.”
The most ambitious song on All Fall Down is also the highlight.
“Anne of A Thousand Days” is co-written by guitarist extraordinaire, Bill
Frisell. The tune is slow and contemplative. Colvin plays sexual spy, uncovering
a lover’s infidelities. She begins to realize all his conquests are expendable,
like a modern day Henry the Eighth. Frisell’s guitar spins a web as delicate
as gossamer, cocooning Colvin’s plaintive vocals.
This album expands Colvin’s horizons beyond the sparse confines
of the singer-songwriter landscape. That’s best exemplified by two songs,
“The Neon Light Of The Saints” and “Change Is On The Way.”
On the former, a tribal tattoo anchors the rhythm. Woozy, clarinet,
coronet and trombone weave in and out of the melody like drunken sailors
on shore leave. Ironically the lyrics concern spirituality, faith and redemption.
The latter, co-written by Patty Griffin, weds backwoods instrumentation
of pedal-steel guitar and fiddle to a countrified melody. Once again
Colvin’s lyrics examine a romantic entanglement gone awry.
Some heavy hitters give Colvin a hand on All Fall Down.
Bluegrass legends Alison and Viktor Krauss, drummer Brian Blade,
Emmylou Harris and Julie Miller. Jakob Dylan co-wrote the stand out
track, “Seven Times The Charm.” A languid and atmospheric waltz
powered by Bill Frisell’s soaring guitar and Colvin’s yearning vocals.
Colvin also includes a couple of cover songs:
Ray MacDonald’s provocative “American Jerusalem,” which has been
a staple of Colvin’s live set for years. “Up On That Hill” by Mick Flannery
combines a Celtic melody with Emmylou Harris’ angelic harmony vocal.
B.W. Stevenson’s “On My Own” closes the album.
It’s equal parts tender farewell and declaration of emotional independence.
The collateral effects of All Fall Down compels the listener
to revisit Colvin’s older efforts. This album takes rich metaphors and wraps
them in gorgeous melodies. Colvin is like a musical Jane Goodall, documenting
and cataloguing human behavior and the awkward rituals of romance.

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