Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

OCTOBER 19, 1998: 

Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell, and Dar Williams , Cry Cry Cry (Razor & Tie)

Cry Cry Cry, a self-titled collaboration from three very talented neo-folkie singer-songwriters, is a fine celebration of the renaissance of contemporary songwriting that’s occurred in North American music over the past decade or so.

Dar Williams, the best known of the trio, is a self-confessed “theatre nerd” weaned on equal parts early ’60s folk and ’70s bubblegum pop. Fresh from her second year at the Lilith Fair, her songs have been recorded by both the old and the new guard of folk stalwarts. The same can be said for Richard Shindell, who recently accompanied Joan Baez on an extensive tour of Europe and the United States. Lucy Kaplansky has appeared on landmark albums by Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith, and Suzanne Vega, and all three members of Cry Cry Cry have guested on each other’s recordings and toured together, where they discovered a passion for some of the same songs that appear on this album.

This CD offers a dozen excellent tunes, and merely perusing the roster of songwriters here was enough to make a folkhound like myself start salivating like Pavlov’s dog. It includes gems by Robert Earl Keen, Buddy Mondlock, Julie Miller, and Nerissa Nields, among others. Some of my favorite tracks, though, are by relatively unknown artists, like the compelling tale of a fire fighter, “Cold Missouri Waters,” penned by Canadian James Keelaghan, and the group’s acappella version of the magnificent “Northern Cross,” written by a housewife from Pittsburgh, Leslie Smith. Although, as expected, the main emphasis is on acoustic music, the CD also features a cover of R.E.M.’s “Fall on Me,” with a choir of angelic voices and rolling drums, and a toe-tapping country rocker, “Down by the Water,” written by Jim Armenti. Another highlight is Shindell’s own “The Ballad of Mary Magdalene,” a song which, depending on your frame of reference, can be seen as either blasphemous or as simply a poignant love song. While orthodox Christians may find Mary’s account of rolling in Our Saviour’s arms under the desert stars a trifle disturbing, I’ve always thought that Jesus liked wine, women, and song, and so I think it’s entirely appropriate.

Williams, Kaplansky and Shindell plan to tour together in late December, and they’ve invited the featured artists on the CD to alternate as opening acts from city to city. The tour should result in some major exposure for these musicians as well as a wonderful concert experience. – Lisa Lumb

Son Volt, Wide Swing Tremolo (Warner Bros.)

Son Volt’s Jay Farrar may be the most fatalistic rock and roller since John Fogerty in his Creedence days. The poor guy doesn’t necessarily take it hard because he seems to always expect the worst. Like Fogerty, he sometimes conveys the assurance (and vocabulary) of an Old Testament prophet. Also like Fogerty, his fatalism often expresses itself through weather imagery. But, while Fogerty’s bad moons rising and unstoppable rains were clearly metaphorical, Farrar’s take is as often literal: Son Volt document a world where life’s transiency is amplified against a backdrop of natural forces – a place where, after we’ve passed through, the rhythm of the river remains. Let’s remember that the Farrar we now know emerged fully on Anodyne, Uncle Tupelo’s final album and a record that clearly shows the effect of two natural events – the floods of 1992 that ravaged the band’s Midwestern home front, and the earthquake scare along a New Madrid fault that went right through their front door.

This stuff isn’t nearly as conservative or nostalgic as a lot of rock crits (a notoriously coastal and urban-centric bunch) would have you believe, but I do wish Farrar would take a cue from his geographical and musical comrades The Bottle Rockets and crack a joke every now and then, or at least give some indication that the riverside landscapes he obsesses over are inhabited by real people living real lives. But maybe it’s hard to notice those details from the window of your car. If anything, Son Volt makes geographically specific road music: “From Memphis to New Orleans…” Farrar sings on “Creosote,” from 1997’s Straightaways. And you might as well extend that trek north to the small western Illinois towns that Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn are from (and where Wide Swing Tremolo was recorded), and straight up the Mississippi to the Twin Cities, where Farrar found the Boquist brothers, Dave and Jim – his own Garth Hudson and Rick Danko.

It’s unfortunate for Farrar and Co. that Lucinda Williams happened to craft a masterpiece out of the same subject (or at least the Southern half of the journey) earlier this year. Where Williams’ Car Wheels On A Gravel Road features lyrics so precise and evocative that they rival Chuck Berry, Wide Swing Tremolo finds Farrar reaching new levels of indecipherability. If you can figure out what “unveilings free from saturation/departures raised with no masquerading” means, more power to you. Farrar’s big voice and his band’s down home elegance have always masked his lyrical deficiencies, and, from the Stonesy blast of the opening “Straightface” to the surprisingly loose shuffle of the closing “Blind Hope,” they continue to deliver the aural goods. But Wide Swing Tremolo finds Farrar’s imagistic lyrics slipping off into the same wind he once claimed would take our troubles away. – Chris Herrington

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