Shawn Colvin belongs to a small class of female singer-songwriters who shot to fame in a strange time for the genre’s development. It was after the first wave of the early ’70s songstresses such as Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, and Janis ian, but before the late ’90s ushered in Lilith Fair, thereby legitimizing the genre again and also making listeners aware how many variants there were of girl-with-guitar music. Colvin had neither of these times working to her advantage when she began her solo career, instead having a scant few contemporaries.
Flash forward twenty years and, somewhat paradoxically, technology has made folk music more accessible. Web presences have helped launch the career of indie neo-folk darlings like Erin McKeown and Beth Amsel. But Colvin is also trying to maintain her foothold in a market where Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, and Nerissa & Katryna Nields earned their fame the old-fashioned way.
Which isn’t to say that there can only be one noteworthy acoustic female singer-songwriter, but that the plethora of them does necessitate a certain competition for the same audience. While Colvin has had more mainstream success than the likes of Williams or Kaplansky, much of that airplay was garnered before music underwent its drastic shift that made mainstream and not-mainstream such distinct categories. As much as Live offers Colvin’s dynasty at its most musically sparse, it also highlights the two decades during which she’s made music and forces comparisons between Colvin and singers in similar genres.
Now that listeners have such a wide selection, Live is a hard sell, especially given the album’s slow pace and plodding songs. Colvin’s lyrics, while well-crafted, aren’t sharp enough to salvage the album’s monotony. Faced with the task of recording interesting solo live acoustic albums, other artists have included hilarious anecdotes, spoken-word pieces, guest vocalists, exclusive cover versions, or other ways to retrieve eardrums from the inevitable lull of a monochromatic sound. Colvin uses these techniques only sparingly — her cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” is ambitious, but as the fourteenth of fifteen songs, it’s too little too late, even though it’s followed up with a sweet version of the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place”. There is another cover (Robbie Robertson’s “Twilight”), but it’s not a standout track on the album.
The songs themselves have some gems among them — “Polaroids” and “Shotgun Down the Avalanche” have stood up especially well, and the natural lilt in Colvin’s voice makes them all the more potent for it. Other songs lose something in this iteration. The Grammy Award-winning “Sunny Came Home” lacks not only the additional instrumentation that made it a pop hit, but Colvin’s voice doesn’t quite master the chorus in the same way that made the song so infectious. Rather unfortunately, one of the most masterful songs on the album, speaking instrumentally, is “Tennessee”, which is full of tired and bigoted portrayals of the American South. There’s a rich southern daddy, a man who tells her to get out by sundown, many references to backroads, mention of a “Rebel soul”, all of which conclude with Colvin protesting “I’m not the bad city girl come down to rape you / I’m not the hometown queen who wants to save you.”
Throughout the songs, one element that remains constant is Colvin’s unflinching sincerity. At times, this makes her songs painful, even her classics like “Diamond in the Rough”, which are a little too sincere. This sincerity, augmented with the sweetness in Colvin’s voice, which doesn’t seem able to hold angst even if she tried, and augmented even further by the somewhat repetitive guitar work, can make listening to Live a cumbersome affair (though the songs would work quite nicely on mix cd’s or playlists). Careful listening is required to enjoy it, but careful listening will also limit its shelf life.