For her first Nonesuch release, singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin and longtime producer/co-writer John Leventhal strip things back to the basics. The same approach made her 1989 Columbia debut Steady On a refreshing breath of fresh air at a time when kitchen sink production was de rigueur. Both have matured as artists in the ensuing years, and These Four Walls is a more polished affair, but it's still ultimately about the songsand presenting them as honestly as possible, with a minimum of artifice or fuss.
Of course the fact that the majority of the sounds on These Four Walls come from Leventhal's multi-instrumental layersaside from Colvin's propulsive acoustic guitar and whispery voice, Shawn Pelton's drums, and a handful of guest appearancesreflects the great deal of consideration that went into making it. It just doesn't feel that way.
Leventhal gained as much critical exposure from Steady On as Colvin did, going on to work with artists like Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash and Tom Rush. Unlike Larry Klein, who produced the majority of Colvin's Fat City (Columbia, 1992)and in doing so managed to take something of a cookie-cutter approach and make an overproduced mess of some undeniably strong materialLeventhal has the uncanny and wonderful knack of being able to weave a rich sonic tapestry that actually breathes.
In a time when shows like American Idol teach aspiring singers that the secrets to success are melodrama and pyrotechnics, it's especially satisfying to hear a singer like Colvin, who relies on purity of tone, nuance and subtle phrasing to deliver her message. She still covers a lot of territory, from the rockier stance of "Tuff Kid" and "The Bird" to the bluesy roots of "I'm Gone" and the anthemic "Let It Slide." She's also able to hear past a song's treatment, morphing Paul Westerberg's "Even Here We Are" and the Bee Gees' classic "Words" into spare folk tunes that are more moving than their sources.
Lyrically, Colvin's not as poetic as Joni Mitchell, as wry as Lyle Lovett or as biting as Randy Newman. She's more direct with the pen, yet she manages to imbue an autobiographic honesty without pandering to any kind of lowest common denominator. Live '88 (Plump, 1995) made it clear that she has nothing to prove when it comes to self-accompaniment, but it's all the more significant that her strong rhythmic playing, despite being surrounded by Leventhal's orchestration, remains at the core of every song.
These Four Walls is only Colvin's fifth release in nearly two decades to focus on original material. As long as half a decade may pass between them, but Colvin's own pieceswith and without Leventhalalways have enough resonance to keep fans satisfied during intervening years. These Four Walls represents another in a string of winners.
Fill Me Up; These Four Walls; Tuff Kid; Summer Dress; Cinnamon; Venetian Blue; The Bird; I'm Gone; Let It Slide; Even Here We Are; So Good to See You; That Don't Worry Me Now; Words.
Shawn Colvin: acoustic guitar, vocals; John Leventhal: guitars, bass, keyboards, percussion, mandolin, dobro, pedal steel; Shawn Pelton: drums, percussion; Rick DePofi: percussion and horns (11); Patty Griffith: vocals (5); Marc Cohn: vocals (5); Teddy Thompson: vocals (9); Antoine Silverman: violin (3); Greg Liesz: pedal steel (2).
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