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Lucy Kaplansky: The Red Thread

Jason MacNeil

Lucy Kaplansky

The Red Thread

Label: Red House
US Release Date: 2004-02-10
UK Release Date: 2004-02-09

If it weren't for a guitar and her love of music, Lucy Kaplansky might still be in private practice, talking to those who have various problems in life. After releasing Every Single Day in 2002, Kaplansky had some changes in her life that would shape this new album: the adoption of a child from China as well as the aftereffects of September 11 and coming to terms with the tragedy. The mix of folk, country, and pop is all over the place on this ten-track record, but her first offering is definitely that of a seasoned singer-songwriter. "I Had Something" starts off in a slightly murky, dark place but her crystal clear vocals cuts through the feeling quickly. The simplicity of the lyrics is perhaps her biggest strength, creating simple pictures with simple words. Fans of Rosanne Cash would lap this tune up, especially considering some of those who have played with Cash are on this album. Duke Levina's mandola and mandolin are a highlight here also.

From this musical jumping off point, Kaplansky goes into a softer roots pop mold during "Line in the Sand", bringing to mind Mary Chapin Carpenter and also Shawn Colvin. But for some reason, despite the lyrics that talk about terrorism and religious zealots, the tune doesn't quite work as well as it could. The dichotomy between the happy-go-lucky melody and talking about having "so much blood on all our hands" is too much for the tune to get around. Kaplansky and John Gorka lend backing harmonies to the lead for a nice finish, but it isn't enough to put it over the top. "Love Song/New York" works far better, a piano driven ditty that Natalie Merchant or Aimee Mann couldn't improve. Another bonus is the brushing of drummer Ben Whittman, which gives it a softer, adult contemporary pop groove. It also contains a very light pop flavor in the vein of Sarah McLachlan.

There are several singers who can move from genre to genre with relative ease. But Kaplansky is one of the few who sounds as if she's gliding effortlessly from song to song, despite the breathy high notes of "This Is Home", which ambles along without much happening and no real need to get done in a hurry. It's the haunting quality and tone which makes it so enjoyable to listen to, again with Gorka on backing vocals, that sounds as if it could end up being five or six minutes but clocks in at four. This idle quality gets a kick in the pants with the bouncy Americana pop of "Off and Running", a perfectly timed breath of fresh air. It's rare that a track listing has such a positive effect on an album, but Kaplansky and her advisers know what works. Teeming with just enough riffs buried in the mix, there is nothing in-your-face about the song but it comes across extremely strong. Perhaps the highlight of the record is using this roots folk mode in describing the go-go, frantic city life that is the Big Apple on "Land of the Living" and the backlash some have felt for the actions of a crazed few.

After "Cowboy Singer", which talks about labels signing anyone who is good, regardless of age or genre, Kaplansky gets a bit silly on the country honk of "Hole in My Head", a tune that maybe Carlene Carter would have much more success with. Repeating lyrics and the title throughout, this lighthearted tune doesn't really go anywhere, resembling a Dire Straits or Mark Knopfler song that was a half-finished idea. She atones for it quickly with the closing one-two punch, starting with the quasi-waltz effects on the title track. Taken from the idea of an ancient Chinese belief, the song flows better than quite a few on the album. "Brooklyn Train" is another New York City vignette that vividly describes the hustle and bustle of travelling on public transit. "Safe in the body of New York again", is the closing line. A terrific album, but then again you shouldn't expect anything less.

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