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Music from the Cube: What Am I Listening To Today?

Ahhhh, 'tis the season for everyone. So Happy Holidays — whatever holiday you happen to be celebrating — to one and all of you.

As for me, I've decided to go with the scientifically accurate Winter Solstice. Here, for everyone to enjoy, is my early Winter Solstice present: the lovely voice and song-writing artistry of Shawn Colvin, with a bonus review of a live CD highlighting Columbia recording artists.

So dive on in, with 24 sample MP3 downloads from Shawn Colvin and 4 sample MP3 downloads of live performances from Bruce Cockburn, Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Darden Smith.

Please comment if you donwload.



Shawn Colvin
[Support the Artist, Artist's MySpace Page, Artist's Official Web Site]



Good heavens. Has Shawn Colvin really been recording for 17 years? Gah! I feel old.

Colvin is another one of those voices that you've probably heard more of than you realized. Aside from her own Grammy Award-nominated and -winning recordings, she sang back-up on Suzanne Vega's 1987 hit, 'Luka,' has appeared singing back-up for musical pal Mary Chapin Carpenter, provided the theme song to Brooke Shields's sitcom, Suddenly Susan, sung some commercial jingles for Disney Theme Parks, and has had a few walk-on parts on primetime U.S. television.

What makes me feel even older is that Colvin has been working her unique blend of pop-new folk-light country-light blues-y music since long before she signed with Columbia. I find it somewhat funny that Colvin first tried to break into the music biz by fronting a hard rock band (truly one of those things that make you go, "Bwah?" followed by, "I so need to hear this."), before moving on to Western swing (makes more sense), and then settling down and finding her own voice.

The keynote in all of Colvin's music is a sense of restlessness, heartbreak, and rebuilding after the fall, whether it is in her studio CD debut for Columbia, 1989's Steady On, or in her latest CD (her first studio CD in 5 years), These Four Walls, her debut release for the extraordinary Nonesuch Records, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers.

Like all artists I truly adore, Colvin is a great live artist, as you can see from her Live '88 CD. I was lucky to see Colvin when she performed at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel & Met Café, one of the diviest dives that has ever dived, but a fantastic place to see live performers thanks to its intimate (some might say overly intimate) setting. How intimate? The locals have a habit of not just shouting their requests up to the stage, but pulling the performing artist into full-blown conversations. The fact that Colvin did well with the rough-and-tumble Providence crowd (even if she was only armed with her guitar and a mic stand), says quite a lot about her.

Aside from providing a full overview of all the CDs I own of Colvin's, I've also included a bonus CD, The Columbia Records Radio Hour, Vol. 1, which includes live performances from Shawn Colvin and others.

Anyway, I've nattered on enough. Now I'll just let you get to the reviews and the downloads.



Live '88 Rating=$$$$$
How I Got This CD: Bought new God knows where.



Easily the best CD Colvin has ever produced, but then again, I do have a weakness for Live CDs. This was recorded in Somerville, MA, during 1988. That means that even though Live '88 was released the year before 1996's A Few Small Repairs, it's older than her 1989 debut Columbia release Steady On. As a result, Live '88 consists of a mix of cover songs and songs that show up on Steady On and Fat City.

What's so striking about this album is that you realize her studio CDs don't really do justice to her talents, in large part because the orchestration sometimes distracts from her clear, sweet, strong voice. Backed by only her guitar, Colvin's voice rings true, and her musical phrasing is both effective and dramatic. It's a perfect wrapping for the lyrics in all of the songs, whether they they were written by Colvin and her usual co-writer, John Leventhal, or other people.

I wasn't overly fond of the studio version of 'Something to Believe In,' but this live version is just fantastic, made all the more fantastic by Colvin's interweaving of 'I Got the Sun in the Morning' from the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun. Very much worth the download.

'Knowing What I Know Now' is another Colvin/Leventhal composition. However, this is one track doesn't show up on any of Colvin's studio albums, which is a bit of a mystery to me since it's a good song. It does, however, show up on a CD called 'Windows to the World,' which appears to be a greatest hits compilation of sorts, but I honestly can't find any more information about it beyond that.

Also included in this download are two covers. 'Don't You Think I Feel It, Too?' was written by someone named David Bell (sorry, I can't find more information than that) and 'Kathy's Song,' which was originally performed by Simon and Garfunkel.

Sample Song Downloads: Something to Believe In/I Got the Sun in the Morning from Annie Get Your Gun (Live), Don't You Think I Feel It Too? (Live), Kathy's Song (Live), Knowing What I Know Now (Live)



Steady On Rating=$$$
How I Got This CD: Bought used in Western Massachusetts



Even though Colvin is usually found in the rock/pop section of ye olde music store, she's sometimes filed until folk and, the real head-scratcher, country. This CD is probably why. The songs blend modern folk, light country, and adult rock in a pleasing pop blend. Certainly you can hear multiple strains in many of the songs, although I was surprised to notice just how country some of the tracks do sound.

As a true debut CD, this one is top notch and a very good introduction to Colvin's style. The biggest disappointment (and it really isn't a disappointment so much as an observation) is that Colvin's voice seems to be de-emphasized on some tracks while the orchestration seems to be emphasized just a tetch too much. That's not to say that Steady On isn't a gem of a CD, because it most certainly is. There's a lot to love about it and it's one that you'll return to again and again. However, compared to her later studio albums where Colvin seems more self-assured and her voice is placed more center-stage, Steady On suffers by comparison.

The relatively low rating of $$$ has nothing to do with the actual music on the CD and is more a case of economics. Thanks to Colvin's five-year hiatus from making studio albums, it's very easy to find Steady On in your local used music store for a reasonable price. And also, like I said, there are better albums by Colvin you could be listening to.

For the downloads below, I went with some obvious suspects.

The title track 'Steady On' is Colvin's breakout hit and one that brought her to the attention of the listening public.

'Shotgun Down the Avalanche' has has a bit of a country twang and the storyline of a folksong. There's some fantastic imagery and lyrical lines in this one that are simply lovely to hear. Best of all, Colvin's voice is not obscured by the orchestration, so that clear voice of hers truly rings out in this one.

'Another Long One' is a bit more frenetic than you'd usually hear out of Colvin, which is why it's included here. I sometimes adore this song, and sometimes I wonder what the hell she was thinking. Either way, I thought I'd include it because it is an unusual song for her.

'Cry Like an Angel' is tied for 'my most favorite song by Colvin, ever' (the other is 'Kill the Messenger' from Fat City). This one also starts off with a bit of a country twang, but there's something wonderfully lovely about this song. It's the sort of thing you'd tell a friend who's crumbling under the weight of the world.

Sample Song Downloads: Steady On, Shotgun Down the Avalanche, Another Long One, Cry Like An Angel



Fat City Rating=$$$$$
How I Got This CD: Bought new in New Hampshire



We all go through a deeply crappy period in life, the kind of crappy period where we hang on to whatever good thing we can find, and I'm no different. Fat City came into my life in the depths of said crappy period and it was one of those good things that I held on to. While some people look at this as a sophomore slump, believing that Steady On was the superior album, or that her better albums were still ahead, I can't possibly agree. This, to me, is the best studio album Colvin has ever released.

What's nice about this CD is that the orchestration is used much more appropriately and Colvin's voice is not nearly as overwhelmed as it was in Steady On. It's nice to hear her and her guitar work front-and-center after the heavy orchestration of Steady On, even though there's still quite a lot of it. The lyrics have a folk-y touch, the music has a light country touch, and there are enough pop hooks to keep everyone happy.

'Round of Blues' is one that was a hit for Colvin and one that I positively adore. The lyrics are sharp, the bridge has a bounce to it, and the beat makes you bop.

'Climb On (A Back That's Strong)' keels me with its lyrics every single time. My favorite line? "You can be the woman you need, if you just let me be the man I am." I know. Probably shouldn't have blown me away the way it did when I first heard it, but back when this song was released, mainstream female singers would not sing a line like that. Unless they were Dar Williams. And even then 'When I Was a Boy' was still a year in the future. The other thing that blows me away? The lyrics are sad, even as the melody is incredibly hopeful. Best of all, if you listen closely, you can hear Mary Chapin Carpenter singing back-up on this one.

'Kill the Messenger,' like I said, is tied for "all-time favorite Shawn Colvin song," and one, I imagine, would be almost impossible to perform live. It's one of the few Colvin songs where I can honestly say the orchestration actually makes the song, rather than just lyrics (although the lyrics are pretty good). I've offered this song for download a couple of times as part of different mixes, but I love it so much that I'm doing it again.

'I Don't Know Why' is one of those tunes that I think I don't like, yet there's one line that wins me over every single time. Personally, I'm not exactly sure what I'd do if someone offered to lay down their life for me (run like hell, probably), but the way Colvin sings it, coupled with almost reverent, church-like music, I believe it. The live version of this also appears on Live '88 and was also frequently covered by Devonsquare during their live performances.

Sample Song Downloads: Round of Blues, Climb On (A Back That's Strong), Kill the Messenger, I Don't Know Why



A Few Small Repairs Rating=$$$
How I Got This CD: Bought new in Rhode Island



Now we skip ahead to A Few Small Repairs. On this CD Colvin has added some bluesy and jazzy riffs to her repertoire. There's even a a song with a very Broadway feel to it.

When it comes to A Few Small Repairs, I feel like the naysayer. It was easily Colvin's most critically acclaimed album to date, it holds her biggest hit, it produced the best video she ever did. It won Grammy Awards for heaven's sake. Everyone I knew who liked Colvin loved this CD.

Me? I hated it. To make it doubly bad in my mind, it came right on the heels of Cover Girl, a CD I disliked so much that I traded it away within a year of buying it. Between the two CDs, I swore off buying anything by Colvin ever again. It's why I don't own A Whole New You. However, since I do own These Four Walls, it's pretty clear that I broke that particular vow.

I can't quite figure out why I hated this CD so much when I first heard it. While it's still not a favorite, there's a lot to like about this one among the individual tracks. Colvin's voice is usually subdued as she sings near the bottom of her vocal range. Sometimes she whispers, sometimes she growls, and it can be uncomfortable to hear. In either case, she mostly shakes her usual vocal style in favor of singing in a confessional tone. The best way to put it is that I like this CD for its parts (or individual songs) better than I like the whole. There's a very fractured, uneasy feeling to the CD overall, in large part because the characters Colvin sings about are either unlikeable, or have lost hope, or have lost their grip on reality, or are so angry that they've crossed the line into being dangerous.

Maybe I shouldn't be shocked that this harsh CD was recorded on the heels Colvin's life being tossed into turmoil. Her marriage was falling apart and she had relocated to Austin. I think this explains a lot.

In either case, I do like the CD (now), but I'm still not sure what to make of it.

Naturally, I had to offer 'Sunny Came Home,' easily the strongest track on this CD and a monster hit for Colvin. An interesting bit of trivia about this one. The entire song was inspired by a painting created by Texas artist Julie Speed, who also happens to be a friend of Colvin's. The painting, of course, is also the cover of the CD.

'If I Were Brave' sounds like it belongs in a Broadway musical. There is nary a guitar in sight. Instead, it's Colvin railing against her situation, her cowardice, and against her inability to move forward set to piano and soft violins. There's something incredibly sad about this one.

'Suicide Alley' is another fairly evocative song with a underlying melody line that puts me in mind of 'Diamond in the Rough' from Steady On. There's a bluesy feel to this as and a vaguely menacing, fearful feel to the lyrics as the singer worries about a friend's a sanity.

'Nothin' On Me' might be better known to some people as the theme song to Brooke Shields's sitcom, Suddenly Susan, which hit the airwaves the same year this CD was released. Dear heavens! A song that's actually cheerful. Okay, she's walking out on a bad relationship and saying good riddance to bad rubbish, but she sounds so chipper about it. YAY!

Sample Song Downloads: Sunny Came Home, If I Were Brave, Suicide Alley, Nothin' On Me



Retrospective Rating=$$$$$
How I Got This CD: Got free as a demo during my Bordersverse daze.



Believe it or not, I never listened to this five-song EP before writing this overview. I got it for free as a demo, but it remained in its cellophane wrapping until just a few days ago. This one is a true rarity. It was an EP that released exclusively through Borders as a kind of publicity stunt in advance of A Whole New You. Ironically enough, the EP was sold to customers, not given away like these things usually are. I lucked out and got it free.

And what an EP! I'm sorry I didn't listen before now. It might've convinced me to give A Whole New You a shot.

In any case, this EP consists of three live tracks, one song from Cover Girl, and one song from A Whole New You. I should note, 'This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)' is a cover of the Talking Heads tune, and the best track off Cover Girl. 'Roger Wilco,' which has Charlie Sexton singing harmony, is from A Whole New You.

Since the EP is simply not available any more, I'm putting up all five tracks.

Sample Song Downloads: Sunny Came Home (Live at The Plant Studios), Diamond in the Rough (from the PBS live music series Sessions at West 54th), Round of Blues (Live at The Warfield), This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody), Roger Wilco



These Four Walls Rating=$$$$
How I Got This CD: Bought used off Amazon.



Colvin's return to the studio after a 5-year absence and her debut CD for Nonesuch Records is simply fantastic. The whole CD is rife with songs about growing up, growing older, and working hard to achieve and maintain happiness. Despite the struggles in the past, and the struggles you know are yet to come, the characters in these songs manage to achieve a kind of peace that maybe they once didn't think was possible (tries not to look at A Few Small Repairs), which makes it all the more welcome if unexpected. Colvin moves further into new folk/country territory with a touch of bluegrass to make it all go down sweet. Certainly you can hear the years and living in Colvin's voice here, but it's no less sweet for all that.

Frankly, this CD (along with Maggie Taylor's cover art) so won my heart that I just might, maybe, perhaps will go revisit Cover Girl and give A Whole New You a shot. Oh, yeah. It's that good.

I was hard pressed to whittle the MP3 samples down to four on this one. On my first pass for this CD, I had pegged 9 out of the total 13 tracks as potential MP3s to share. So, yeah, I'm not kidding when I say this is a good CD to have (or to give to someone on your gift list, for that matter).

'Fill Me Up' is probably the closest you're going to get to pop on this CD, so it's not surprising that it's already hit the airwaves and is bouncing its way up the charts. A catchy lyric, catchy melody line, and general sunny disposition makes this track a real charmer.

'Cinnamon Road' has a touch of bluesy-ness in the musical line along with a kiss of bluegrass that's all about the inability to completely let go of the past. Sweet, sad, and yet still glorious, made all the more so thanks to backing vocals from Patty Griffin and Marc Cohn

'Let it Slide' is has a bit of a pop-country twang as Teddy Thompson joins Colvin in this song about believing that love is still possible, despite past disappointments and betrayals, because the heart is always willing to try.

'Even Here We Are' puts me in a folk-y state of mind as Colvin solos with a stripped-down guitar and piano about finding beauty in the most unlikely places. The lyric and music are as graceful as the subject matter. I can't quite put my finger on why this song breaks my heart, but it does as sure as Colvin seems to be when she insists that the most beautiful flowers grow wild "in the garbage dump."

Sample Song Downloads: Fill Me Up, Cinnamon Road, Let It Slide, Even Here We Are



Bonus Disc
The Best of Columbia Records Radio Hour, Vol. 1, Various Artists, Rating=$$$$
[Support the Artists]
How I Got This CD: Bought used in Massachusetts.



Once more, the high rating is because of my fetish for live CDs by insanely talented artists. And when you've got an all-star line-up like you've got here, this one is an automatic slam-dunk.

Although technically not a Colvin release, she does feature heavily on this compilation CD. The Columbia Records Radio Hour is (or was, since I'm not clear if it's still being broadcast) a live radio broadcast of Columbia artists performing before 350 fans.

There are some fantastic live tracks on this CD from artists like Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Cockburn, James McMurtry, David Byrne, Lou Reed, Rosanne Cash, Peter Himmelman, Darden Smith, among others. However, what makes this CD really special is that many of these artists are singing with each other. How'd you like to hear Colvin and Carpenter do a duet? What about Cash and Byrne? Would you love it if you heard a live version of Cockburn doing 'Lovers in a Dangerous Time?' If your answer is "yes," then this is 25 tracks of pure awesome (warning, almost half the tracks are the artists providing a little introduction).

Needless to say, the hardest task for this CD was limiting the sample downloads to just four downloads.

'Lovers in a Dangerous Time' sung by Cockburn was a gimmie for a sample download. Most people seem to be more familiar with the Barenaked Ladies cover of 'Lovers in a Dangerous Time,' to the point that they think it really is a BNL song. Nope. It's Cockburn's song. Much as I love the BNL version, Cockburn's version, especially this live version, leaves BNL's in the dust. This is the must-have download to have, if only this emotionally resonant version.

Although Colvin has one solo ('Polaroids'), and duets with Carpenter on one of her songs ('Shotgun Down the Avalanche'), I opted instead to offer Carpenter and Colvin doing a duet on a Carpenter song. 'Come On, Come On' is from Carpenter's CD of the same name. It's a lovely, emotional rendition of what is already an emotional song that shows off both Colvin's and Carpenter's vocal talents to their best effect. I should note that it was tough choosing between the three Colven-based entries, but I settled on 'Come On, Come On' because it really is the best (by the thinest of thin margins) of the three.

'The Levee Song' is a nice rockabilly number from Darden Smith. You can practically hear the dry, dusty roots in both his voice and in his performance.

'Wouldn't It Be Lovely' is, yes, you guessed it, a cover of the same song from My Fair Lady How cute is it that Rosanne Cash admits that she's a closet showtunes fan in the intro to this song? Cash offers a sweet and mellow rendition of one of my favorite songs from the musical that is just lovely to listen to.

Sample Song Downloads: Lovers in a Dangerous Time (Live) — Bruce Cockburn, Come On, Come On (Live) — Mary Chapin Carpenter with Shawn Colvin, The Levee Song (Live)— Darden Smith, Wouldn't It Be Lovely (Live) — Rosanne Cash



If you just want to hit one page, you can download all files listed above from a single Shawn Colvin project page by clicking here.

If you want the project page for the Columbia Records Radio Hour, click here.


***

To find previous thumbnail reviews, go to the Review Index.

After the download links expire, you can listen to streaming MP3 files linked with reviews at my Vox shadow blog for media.

***


Rating system:
None = Avoid at all cost. Worth cutting your ears off to avoid if someone threatens to play it for you. When faced with even the threat of its cellophane-wrapped presence, your best option is to RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY!

$= If you stumble across it for cheap in a used bin, it might, maybe, perhaps could be worth the buy, but only if you need a cheap coaster for your cold drinks or a cool-looking Frisbee.

$$= You might want to give this CD/artist a try, but only if the sample track tickles your fancy. Don't bother buying this one new because the good tunes you'd get out of this one ain't worth that kind of money.

$$$ = Worth looking for on a casual basis and maybe even buying new, but no big rush.

$$$$ = Definitely worth having in the ol' CD collection and definitely worth buying new, but don't re-arrange your personal "must have" list to get your hands on it.

$$$$$ = Why haven't you bought this CD yet? Go. This is a "Want. Take. Have." situation because you so want this.




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