Shawn Colvin rode the late ‘80s folk boom to the big leagues.
Colvin had spent years fronting a variety of cover bands before going solo in the mid-80s. She hit the Northeast folk circuit and built a strong following. After the success of Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman had major labels on the lookout for folk artists (Colvin had sung back-up on Vega’s hit “Luka”), the singer scored a deal with Columbia.
A singer/songwriter also known as a strong interpreter of others’ songs, Colvin’s albums earned good reviews and decent sales. Multiple Grammy nominations netted her three wins, including the prestigious Record of the Year and Song of the Year trophies for her biggest hit, “Sunny Came Home.”
After parting ways with Columbia in the early ‘00s, Colvin went the indie route, first with Nonesuch and more recently with Fantasy. With a new album out, it’s a good time to revisit her discography.
Shawn Colvin: Steady On (1989)
Shawn Colvin rode a trend to a major label for her debut album, but the focus remained where it should have been: on her voice and guitar. Producer and long-time collaborator John Leventhal fleshed out the arrangements, adding in percussion, keyboards and electric guitars as appropriate, but Steady On was all about Colvin. She very much fit the “singer/songwriter” mold and turned in songs that remain a core part of her repertoire. The lovely title track scored some airplay at Alternative and Adult Pop and was a good mission statement. Other key cuts included the icy imagery of “Shotgun Down the Avalanche” and the playful “Diamond in the Rough.” One of the interesting things about the settings of Steady On is how different fans of Colvin’s live work will find them. The usually energetic “Another Long One” was presented with a lot of restraint, while “Cry Like An Angel” and “Something to Believe In,” usually more ethereal in their live presentation, had rather prominent rhythmic underpinnings in recorded form. That just demonstrated Colvin’s versatility and ability to transition from solo performer to band frontwoman with grace. Steady On won a Grammy for a reason and it’s still an excellent introduction to the Shawn Colvin discography.
Shawn Colvin: Fat City (1992)
For her sophomore album, Shawn Colvin teamed with legendary producer Larry Klein (the man behind several classics for ex-wife Joni Mitchell). Fat City was an evolution of the sound on Colvin’s debut, with the singer demonstrating comfort and ease with the more elaborate orchestrations Klein provided. The rollicking “Round of Blues” and gentle, lovely “I Don’t Know Why” both scored decent airplay, helping expand Colvin’s fanbase, while mid-tempo gem “Climb On (A Back That’s Strong)” also made a strong impression, popping up occasionally in TV placements. Colvin delivered other memorable ballads, including “Monopoly,” “Orion in the Sky” and “Kill the Messenger.” The atmospheric gloom of Gothic-tinged “Set the Prairie on Fire,” the energetic “Tennessee” and a funky take on Warren Zevon’s “Tenderness on the Block” added variety. Fat City, like its predecessor, sold fairly well and produced another pair of Grammy nominations for Colvin. It was a strong album that’s aged well and remains an excellent entry point into the Shawn Colvin catalogue.
Shawn Colvin: Cover Girl (1994)
The cover album became something of a late ‘90s cliché, but when Shawn Colvin delivered Cover Girl in 1994, she was ahead of the trend. While known as a singer/songwriter, Colvin has immense experience as an interpreter and brought those skills to this collection. Soundwise, Colvin mostly stuck to the voice-and-guitar approach that had served her well, recording several of the tracks live. When rhythm or other touches did arise, they were mostly unobtrusive. Though even Colvin admitted bafflement to the label-mandated string section on her Police cover “Every Little Thing (He) Does Is Magic,” a misguided attempt to pander to Adult Contemporary programmers that detracted from Colvin’s otherwise warm, energetic take. Colvin did a nice job with a handful of songs from well-known writers, including a spirited take on Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go;” her transformation of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” into a gentle lullaby; and a cool take on Tom Waits’ “(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night.” But a collection like this succeeds on the artist’s taste level in selecting lesser known writers and Colvin scored quite well. She provided great takes on gems like Willis Alan Ramsey’s “Satin Sheets,” Judee Sill’s “There’s A Rugged Road,” Rolley Salley’s “Killing the Blues” and Greg Brown’s “One Cool Remove” (done as a lovely duet with Mary Chapin Carpenter). Strong takes on The Band’s “Twilight” and Steve Earle’s “Someday” were other highlights. Cover Girl isn’t the best introduction to Shawn Colvin, but for fans who have already discovered her other albums, it’s held up well and is worth hearing.
Shawn Colvin: Live ’88 (1995)
Shawn Colvin spent more than a decade as a live performer before landing a record deal and that’s still a good way to experience her music. Live ’88 featured songs from a pair of performances the year before her debut album appeared. It was strictly a guitar-and-voice affair, but Colvin didn’t need any more than that. Her gentle quaver and strong work with the strings cast a mesmerizing spell. Hearing many of the songs that would turn up on her first couple of albums performed in a quieter, acoustic setting highlighted the strengths of Colvin’s writing. The Steady On tracks especially seemed to breathe more when delivered live. In addition, Colvin did a lovely job on a pair of well-chosen covers, David Ball’s “Don’t You Think I Feel It Too” and Paul Simon’s “Kathy’s Song.” It’s a lovely collection that’s a must for serious Colvin fans, but possibly not of as much interest to more casual listeners.
Shawn Colvin: A Few Small Repairs (1996)
Shawn Colvin scored the biggest hit of her career with the platinum-selling A Few Small Repairs. The album boasted a full, muscular sound that benefitted energetic rock songs like “Get Out of This House” and “Suicide Alley.” But the strength of A Few Small Repairs was its diversity, ranging from the sinister grooves of “The Facts About Jimmy” or “Trouble” to the heartland shuffle of “Wichita Skyline.” The classy adult pop of “You and the Mona Lisa” and “Nothing on Me” were equally at home with the stunning ballads “If I Were Brave” and “New Thing Now.” But the heart of the album is Colvin’s most successful single, the Grammy-winning Top 10 hit “Sunny Came Home.” A Gothic-tinged heartland rock ballad about a woman who burns down her house with her husband inside might not seem like an obvious bid for pop success. But Colvin crafted a mesmerizing cut with complex, turbulent lyrics, highlighted by her spot on vocals. This is the album casual fans are most likely familiar with and two decades on it’s still one of Colvin’s strongest.
Shawn Colvin: Holiday Songs and Lullabies (1998)
Shawn Colvin took a somewhat more interesting tack than the usual Christmas album for Holiday Songs and Lullabies. The production focused on classy pop arrangements, sometimes jazz-influenced, but always tasteful and never too loud. Colvin was looking to soothe with these songs, not hit listeners over the head with them. About half the collection was devoted to Christmas-themed selections. Colvin mostly avoided the obvious and went with some venerable hymns (“In The Bleak Mid-Winter,” “Love Came Down at Christmas,” the almost mandatory “Silent Night,” “The Christ Child’s Lullaby”) and some funkier, more modern selections (“Christmas Time Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, “Little Road to Bethlehem”). The remainder of the disc was given over to a clutch of poems taken from a Maurice Sendak-illustrated collection, given gentle, ingratiating musical settings. Sendak even illustrated the liner notes. It added up to a soothing, tuneful collection that was a bastion of calm for a chaotic season and remains worth playing every Yuletide.
Shawn Colvin: Whole New You (2001)
It was nearly five years before Shawn Colvin provided a proper follow-up to A Few Small Repairs. On arrival, Whole New You got decent reviews. Colvin went in more of an Adult Alternative vein, reining in some of the more overt rock elements of Repairs. There was still some room for that on a great tune like the driving “Bound to You.” The lead single and title track was a sunny piece of Beatles-inspired adult pop that Colvin delivered rather well. But it was the more dramatic and offbeat songs where You really shined. Dark, emotionally turbulent opener “A Matter of Minutes” wrestled with the ambivalence of domestic commitments. Colvin worked with a sinister Americana sound on the haunting “Mr. Levon” to powerful effect. The most daring song was also Colvin’s most experimental: the dreamy, rhythmic pulse of “Another Plane Went Down” used the alarming trend of air disasters as a complex metaphor for the troubles a difficult relationship. It was one of Colvin’s most interesting ideas and she sold it rather well. The collection ended (in most editions; some copies had a decent bonus track) with “I’ll Say I’m Sorry Now,” a gentle, world-weary lullaby Colvin delivered to her young daughter. Whole New You was another strong, diverse outing for Colvin, but the industry had moved on without her and sales all but evaporated. Which was too bad, as these songs were worth hearing. This isn’t the place to start for neophytes, but once you’ve immersed yourself in Steady On, Fat City and Repairs, this should be your next stop.
Shawn Colvin: Polaroids: A Greatest Hits Collection (2004)
Shawn Colvin wrapped up her Columbia deal with Polaroids, a decent overview of her dozen or so years on the label. All her charting singles and other best known songs were accounted for (“Sunny Came Home,” “I Don’t Know Why,” “Round of Blues,” “Shotgun Down the Avalanche” and “Whole New You,” among others). Also included were a few well-chosen album tracks (“Polaroids,” “The Facts About Jimmy,” “A Matter of Minutes”) and a classy, low-key cover of the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back.” All her Columbia albums were represented (except for Holiday Songs and Lullabies), though excellent soundtrack entries such as “Someone Like You,” “When the Rainbow Comes” and “Never Saw Blue Like That” or contributions to other compilations (like her first-rate cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”) were curiously omitted (and at only 15 tracks, there was plenty of room for them). That held this back from being a truly comprehensive overview of this phase of Colvin’s career. But for casual listeners, Polaroids is a good summary of Colvin’s major label years. Devoted fans will likely have all these songs and just want to download “I’ll Be Back.”
Shawn Colvin: These Four Walls (2006)
Shawn Colvin relocated to the Nonesuch label for her first collection of new music in more than five years. It was an auspicious new beginning, as These Four Walls was one of the strongest albums of her career, a canny mix of adult alternative rock and pop, mid-tempo Americana and thoughtful ballads that explored the various facets of Colvin’s sound. Lead single “Fill Me Up” was a smart piece of adult alterna-pop, bright and energetic with a strong lead vocal. “Tuff Kid” packed a powerful rock punch and Colvin explored styles like the slinky groove of “I’m Gone” or the sunny pop of “The Bird.” As always, the singer excelled with several strong ballads, including the exotic melodrama of “Venetian Blue,” the world-weary contemplation “That Don’t Worry Me Now” or the nostalgic “Summer Dress.” Colvin continued to show excellent taste in cover material, turning in a funky, rhythmic reading of Paul Westerberg’s “Even Here We Are” and a gentle, lilting take on the Bee Gees classic “Words.” The other songs on the collection were all strong, too, and cohered as a seamless, compelling whole. It was a great way to kick off the latest chapter in her career. After A Few Small Repairs, These Four Walls may be Shawn Colvin’s most necessary album.
Shawn Colvin: Live (2009)
As a musician who made her reputation (and still makes a significant part of her living) as a live performer, it was odd that Live was only the second concert recording Shawn Colvin released. Live put Colvin into the setting she shines in most: just her voice and an acoustic guitar. Colvin was in a contemplative mood here, but also confident enough not to stack the set list with her best known songs. Instead, Live was an interesting collection of tracks from throughout the singer’s long career (though she found room for her biggest hit, “Sunny Came Home,” and her take on the Gnarls Barkley smash “Crazy”). Giving some spotlight to lesser known songs like “Tennessee,” “Wichita Skyline” and “I’m Gone” demonstrated the depth of Colvin’s catalogue. She sounded great throughout and the set was also a nice spotlight for her guitar skills. Fans familiar with Colvin’s entertaining between-song patter can only wish there’d been more room on the album for that than just the snippets tucked into a couple of intros. But overall, Live is a great way for fans to experience Colvin in her element.
Shawn Colvin: All Fall Down (2012)
One had to wonder if Shawn Colvin was actually ready to record a new album. Which isn’t to suggest that All Fall Down was a misfire. Indeed, it was a very good album, featuring a strong Adult Alternative sound courtesy of legendary Nashville producer Buddy Miller. Miller helped tease out the Americana elements that have always been part of Colvin’s musical DNA to conjure a tuneful, enjoyable album that fit into the adult music world of 2012 quite well. The question arose because, six years after her last collection of originals, Colvin had only six new songs to offer, barely more than half of All Fall Down. They were good songs, too. The title track had some really good energy and the soaring “I Don’t Know You” may be one of Colvin’s best compositions. She worked nice moods on the slinky “Seven Times the Charm” and the swamp gospel of “The Neon Light of the Saints.” “Change Is On the Way” was a nice moment of adult pop, while Colvin effectively delivered a complex relationship metaphor in the dreamy “Anne of the Thousand Days.” That left five tracks of re-treads and covers. Colvin recycled two of her older songs. “Knowing What I Know Now” dated back to her days on the Northeast folk circuit; it turned up on Live ’88, but never made any of her studio albums. The new version was good, but not necessarily better than its live incarnation. “Fall of Rome” was included as a bonus on some versions of Whole New You. The new recording was stronger, boasting a fuller sound that provided real energy, highlighted by some excellent Jakob Dylan harmonies. Of the three covers, the most notable was Colvin’s stirring take on Rod MacDonald’s “American Jerusalem,” another staple of her early live shows. The thing was, Colvin needed a new album out to complement the release of her excellent (and recommended) memoir, Diamond in the Rough. Under the circumstances, All Fall Down came out pretty well and is still something her devoted fans will want to hear, even if it didn’t quite reach the heights her best albums often did.
Shawn Colvin: UnCovered (2015)
Shawn Colvin has always been as well known for her skill as an interpreter as she is for her songwriting. More than two decades after her first all covers collection, she returns to that well with UnCovered. Musically, this is one of Colvin’s most stripped down studio albums, focusing on what she does live: put her own stamp on a song with little more than her voice and guitar work. At points, subtle bits of rhythm guitar, strings or harmony vocals (David Crosby and Marc Cohn both turn up) waft seamlessly into the background. That puts the burden to deliver on Colvin, who acquits herself quite well. Her honeyed burr remains in good form and she remains her own best accompanist. She adds variety with tempo and rhythm, making UnCovered a warm, ingratiating folk showcase.
As with Cover Girl, UnCovered is distinguished by Colvin’s excellent taste in material. She mostly bypasses familiar songs for lesser known cuts and writers. When she does take on better known compositions, she puts her own twist on them. Her spin on “Tougher Than the Rest” transforms Springsteen’s swaggering declaration into a gentle plaint. She embraces the Americana at the heart of The Band’s “Acadian Driftwood.” But the biggest surprise is her re-working of Gerry Rafferty’s seminal ‘70s hit “Baker Street.” Gone are the towering horns, replaced by Colvin’s intricate acoustic guitar work and Crosby’s simpatico harmony.
Even when covering well known writers, Colvin seeks out less obvious choices, like Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away,” Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” Neil Finn’s “Private Universe” or John Fogerty’s “Lodi.” Colvin also spotlights compositions from off the beaten path, like “Gimme A Little Sign,” “Not A Drop of Rain” and “’Til I Get It Right” that give the singer room to work and shine. UnCovered is a lovely, low key collection that Shawn Colvin’s fans will enjoy. It’s unlikely to win converts or bring back lapsed fans, but at this point in her career, Colvin’s mostly playing to the faithful anyway.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on October 1, 2015.