Two master songwriters flaunt their performance skills on a collection of well- and lesser-known covers.
The Pine Hill Project is the duo of established singer-songwriters Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky. If one considers the bright production and emotive guitar accompaniment provided by Larry Campbell throughout, then it might be as apt to refer to Tomorrow You’re Going as a trio project. However one labels this collection of cover songs by both known and lesser-known songwriters, it is a joy from start to finish.
Album opener, Greg Brown’s “Lately”, sets the album’s tone: mostly upbeat folk rock focused upon the downbeat subject of love found but squandered. Shindell and Kaplansky have sung and toured together for years, and it shows in these nuanced performances. Their taste in fellow songwriters to feature is as well-honed. They bring revelatory grace to the late David Carter’s “Farewell to Saint Dolores”, possibly the best performance on an album filled with masterful singing and playing from all involved.
This is actually Shindell and Kaplansky’s second covers project, having been joined by Dar Williams for the one-off record of covers Cry Cry Cry and subsequent tour in 1998. Like that album Tomorrow You’re Going features a choice mix of the familiar and the surprising. Sometimes, the surprise comes from the familiar, as on the duo’s cover of U2’s “Sweetest Thing”, which fits seamlessly into this collection of songs bound, often, by loss or missed opportunity. The singers’ enjoyment is palpable: one can hear a near giggle in Kaplansky’s voice as Shindell attempts to mimic Bono’s falsetto. At others, the surprise is in the joy of discovering, through their tasteful curating, a talented songwriter not previously experienced. The album offers several such discoveries, such as Elizabeth Ziman’s “Open Book” and David Halley’s “Rain Just Falls”. The latter song finds Shindell and Kaplansky harmonizing in a lower register reflecting mutual acceptance of ending as a natural part of a relationship’s life cycle. Perhaps the greatest revelation on the album comes with Glenn Patscha’s “Such Sweet Angels”. Patscha has accompanied many well-known musicians, including Levon Helm, Jim White, and Neal Casal, but his own work remains obscure (at the time of this writing, his own YouTube performance of the song had garnered just 501 hits in the five years it has been posted). The song is a perfect, melancholy closer to this fine collection.
Shindell and Kaplansky funded the recording of the collection through a Kickstarter campaign that met their goal in its first 24 hours, then doubled it by the end. The extra money actually added time to the album’s anticipated release by enabling them to record in the best possible conditions and add extra care to post-production. That added care is audible throughout. The guitars, be they acoustic, electric, or pedal steel, all chime with clarity while the rhythm section of Byron Isaacs and Denis McDermott adds a booming sonic depth, especially on tracks like the traditional “I Know You Rider” and Paul Carrack and Nick Lowe’s “I Live on a Battlefield”.
If there are any complaints to be made about this collection, they reflect the strength of the whole and its performers: we want more. At 11 cuts, it all passes by so quickly, and anyone who has seen Shindell and Kaplansky perform together knows that they carry an encyclopedia of fellow songwriter classics in their heads (and hearts, so reverent and passionate are their covers). Another missing element is their own work. When they toured following the Cry, Cry, Cry project, Shindell, Kaplansky, and Williams each performed one of their own songs accompanied by the others as an encore. There is ample space here for just such a gesture, perhaps even the opportunity to debut something new from each of these masterful songwriters, who have not released an album of new material since 2009 and 2012, respectively.
I am, perhaps, being greedy. Shindell and Kaplansky have fashioned this record as a gift to their fans, and it is certainly that. But still, I’ve always been that kid on Christmas morning who, having unwrapped the last box, cries, “Is that all?”