North Country Heartache
The Tide was originally released in 1994. The official history says that Kaplansky’s one-time musical partner Shawn Colvin wanted to learn how to produce and that practising psychologist and folk occasionalist Kaplansky thought it might be rather jolly to make a record. Regardless of the professed lack of ambition on both sides, The Tide proved to be Kaplansky’s way back into the full-time folk music career she’d once declined to pursue. Now, after 11 years and four increasingly successful albums, it’s been remastered, repackaged and re-released with two additional songs which, as evry Stephen Patrick Morrissey-loving fule knows, gives us all a chance to re-evaluate her work.
The best place to start is with her song-writing. There are only three Lucy Kaplansky originals on The Tide. The original release featured nine covers, and the 2005 vintage adds two more: Jesse Winchester’s “Everybody Knows But Me” and the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face”. Kaplansky’s subsequent albums typically feature a higher proportion of her own writing, but she still is very much given to the careful selection and successful interpretation of other people’s songs. And very much known for it: see also her work on various tribute albums and her collaboration with Dar Williams and Richard Shindell on Cry, Cry, Cry.
Lucy Kaplansky clearly believes her song-writing has benefited from her psychological training and practice. I’m not so sure.
She has said, “My training has given me a more knowledgeable, sophisticated stance than I used to have when it comes to songwriting… so I think about things I didn’t used to think about, and I can tap into feelings I didn’t understand before.”
I rather think it has over-complicated and over-intellectualised her creative processes, and I am quite sure that her songs are too often too self-aware and too deliberately poetic and that consequently they fail to make the required connection between singer and audience.
“The Tide” opens with a delicate strumming and a suggestion of pedal steel guitar that promises something quite wonderful, and when Lucy Kaplansky begins to sing, you rejoice. Her voice is so clear, so clean, that it must surely herald works of great genius. But then you discover that your new goddess has feet of clay and journals full of poor six form poetry: “I was made to be a good girl/Carried buckets made of stone/Full of envy, full of sorrow/On a tightrope all alone/And all the time I was on fire/I burned with every stride/And now I see this anger/Is the horse I choose to ride”.
Her second song, “Somebody’s Home”, offers perhaps the longest extended metaphor since Waiting For Godot, and while the third, “You Just Need a Home”, attempts a less lofty, more casually earthy approach, it still falls at the first, second and third hurdles: “I like the way you play your songs/I like the way you sing/You look so good in colored lights/And the brilliant spotlight ring/And up there your eyes are fiery/And hotter by degree/But weary and so confused/When no one else can see”.
Yes, the instrumentation, arrangement and production are all but immaculate. And yes, Kaplansky has one of the most lovely and intelligent voices around. But ultimately, a pig in a Chanel dress is still a pig.
Fortunately, Kaplansky has always had excellent taste in other people’s songs. Standouts on The Tide include her takes on Richard Thompson’s “When I Get to the Border” (from the landmark album, “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight”) and Bill Morrissey’s “Texas Blues”; and her breakneck English folk tune take on the Police’s “Secret Journey” also deserves special mention. It’s not as remarkable as the bluegrass “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” she delivered on her second album, Flesh and Bone, but it certainly lit the way.
Eleven years ago, Lucy Kaplansky was over-ambitious and self-defeating in her song-writing but a near peerless performer of third party material who had been blessed with a marvelous voice. Has she grown over the intervening years? Of course, but even on last year’s The Red Thread, the standout songs were Dave Carter’s “Cowboy Singer” and Bill Morrissey’s “Love Song/New York”.
Oh, and isn’t it nice to see both Bill and his cousin Stephen in the same review?