Richard Shindell was once recommended to me by a friend as a “songwriter’s songwriter”, an intriguing description seemingly applied to everyone with a pen and six strings. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Fixated as I’ve always been by wild, idiosyncratic songs and voices, I shied away from Shindell, taking “songwriter’s songwriter” to mean overly meticulous, polished, labored. But come to find out, the term can also mean crafty, focused, and thoughtful. Vuelta tilts favorably toward the latter; and if each note feels deliberate, the strict attention to detail tends to serve the material rather than bog it down. Shindell also ups the ante this time around by recording in his new home of Buenos Aires, Argentina, with the fine local band Puente Celeste, and even singing a couple numbers en Espanol.
The album begins with the nocturnal “Fenario”, and includes a verse from Renaissance poet John Donne’s “Break of Day”. The rest of the song displays Shindell’s chameleon-like ability to mold and adapt to different material. His own verses match Donne’s style and rhythm with ease. The finger-picked guitar pattern pushes against the 4/4 time signature, and Marcelo Moguilevsky’s various winds and reeds further the ambience of a cold winter night in the days of yore. The album’s lone cover follows, of Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy”. Superficially, Seeger is quite a leap from Donne, but the pairing of the two further establishes Shindell’s roots in the musical tradition of storytelling, and sets the table for the eight full-fledged originals that follow on Vuelta.
Almost without exception, the songs are set up as narratives replete with well-realized settings and characters. They are full of proper nouns: Miami, Buenos Aires, the Grand Hotel, the Oslo Queen, St. Luke’s, Newcomb Hollow. Besides allowing Shindell’s voice opportunity to stretch itself over different sound combinations, the specificity lends authenticity and spurs the listener’s imagination. “Che Guevara T-Shirt” is a wonderfully detailed study of a stowaway from Buenos Aires to Dade County, Florida. “. . . He’s standing out on the open deck / Searching for La Cruz del Sur / But by-and-by the sky he knows / Has yielded to another”. Shindell does not restrict himself with the cords of perfect rhyme, allowing for playful match-ups like “sketchy / Miami” and “container / sweetheart”.
Other songs aren’t always as lucky. “The Island” paints a picture of care-free Jimmy Buffett-style living, asserting “Island life does have its charms / The constant sun, the steady breeze”. But it’s too obvious a set-up for the flip-side waiting at the end of the song. Some lines are fantastic, “Its language is an orphan branch / . . . It shares the old declension from the continent”, but others like “The lucky few who call it home / Are prosperous and confident” don’t do much except build giddily in anticipation of the twist.
Still, Shindell hits far more than he misses. His “Canción Sencilla (Simple Song)” is breathtaking. The song is a love letter, as much about learning a new language as it is about the beloved. Sung in Spanish, Shindell offers a terrific translation on his website. Rendered in prose, it reads “My love, I’m sorry not to have written you sooner / Although I always wanted to, the truth is that I couldn’t / What can I say? I’m a little slow /It took me all these years to learn your beautiful language and still it isn’t enough.” Simple in a straight-forward sense? Yes. In an emotional sense? No way.
Shindell’s voice is reminiscent of James Taylor for its warmth, and Michael Stipe’s for its slightly nasal tones. His guitar playing is crisp throughout, and he’s found a fantastic ensemble in Puente Celeste, who contribute everything from doudouk to guitarrón, sitar to glass bottles. In addition, fellow folkie Lucy Kaplansky provides harmony vocals, John Putman the pedal steel, and Radoslav Lorkovic the chimes, to name just a few. The players wisely refrain from cluttering the mix, letting the songs hinge mostly on Shindell’s stories. A songwriter’s songwriter? Sure — but don’t let that scare you if you don’t know a major chord from a minor. Vuelta is for everyone.