Pros: The pop songs are generally better than her debut.
Cons: The rest is heavy handed and not especially enthralling.
Polaroids A- / Tennessee A / Tenderness on the Block B+ / Round of Blues A / Monopoly B / Orion in the Sky B / Climb On (A Back That's Strong) B / Set the Prairie on Fire C+ / Object of My Affection B+ / Kill the Messenger B / I Don't Know Why B-
Here is what I am going to tell you: I like Shawn Colvin. She writes nice music. You know what I mean by nice, don't you? Please don't think I'm suggesting she writes lyrics about puppy love or marshmallow puffs or minty fresh breath. She writes about serious things. People who despair. People leaving their families. People losing their hope. People reminiscing on lost friendship. People losing their innocence. These songs are serious in the way that Lifetime movies are serious. There might not be a happy thought sight, but yet, you still notice that the sets are well-arranged and the soft tones of the film are pleasing to the eye. And trust me, I'm not saying that Shawn Colvin writes stuff that are like stilted and pointless Lifetime movies. It's just that her lyrics seem sort of off-in-the-distance to me. It's like I'm not really able to get inside of them or even, really, to approach them. For instance, I listened to “At the Harbor” by Renaissance recently, and I heard Annie Haslam describe to me the things she was seeing by the sea. And then I saw them, too. Colvin's lyrics are all lovely things to read, but they don't resonate with me. Thus, when I listen to her albums, I tend to concentrate on all the pretty colors.
And the pretty colors are her high-pitched voice as pure as nectar, her sprightly strummed acoustic guitar, and the cute melodic hooks, when she's got 'em. And the album starts right away with a solid hook in “Polaroids.” The instrumentation there is minimal; all you'll hear other than Colvin is a playfully strummed acoustic guitar, and a mild drum shuffle. Otherwise, there's a very quiet, atmospheric instrument in the background, which I want to describe as sounding like a cross between a foghorn and a whale. My only real criticism of it is it tends to repeat a lot and it loses its potency by the end of its, er, six minute running length.
My favorite song is called “Tennessee,” and it ROCKS. Well, that is, it doesn't rock any more than allowed for an adult-contemporary / contemporary-folk / radio-friendly-thing-from-the-'90s. It does have a bit of a country-rock flair to it--danceable bass, swaggering electric guitar, slide guitar, fiddle, clean drums, a consistent tattering of acoustic guitars. There's even a pretty good, electric guitar solo in the middle that sounds like it's always swerving. I like that she manages to allow her vocal melody to wander about in the chorus, seemingly with the aim to pick up as many hooks as it possibly could in its journey. Another clear favorite is “Round of Blues,” another song I'd suppose was aimed squarely for those friendly adult-contemporary radio stations. Nothing wrong with a little financial success, especially when you can write songs that are such a joy to hear. I mean, God knows that station was awful back in those days, but occasionally a good thing would slip through the cracks. It's an upbeat tune, naturally, with Colvin's bittersweetly singing alluringly amongst steady and polished drums and more of her--probably trademarked by now--sprightly guitar strumming.
Other songs are also “nice,” but I don't like them as much as the stuff mentioned above. Unfortunately these songs take up the majority of this album, which means means they constitute a rather significant drag. But even these things make generally good listens. “Tenderness on the Block” is a Warren Zevon cover, a nice thing to hear with a fine melody that's very well put together. “Monopoly” and “Orion in the Sky” are thoughtful ballads that are both rather sparse with well-written melodies, but I can't say I truly buy into the experiences. The album-closer “Don't Know Why” engages in a heavy use of synthesizers, giving it a bit of a 1985 feel, and there's a very gradual instrumental build-up along the way, which unfortunately isn't nearly enough to generate any sort of momentum. “Climb On (A Back That's Strong)” has more of a backing beat, but unfortunately the melody is fairly sterile. “Object of My Affection” is similar to that, but its chorus pops out at me better, and I like the flamenco-dancing hand-claps in its instrumental interlude. The seven-minute epic “Set the Prairie on Fire” starts out with some verrrrry subdued acoustic guitar licks with a bit of attitude, but unfortunately the song barely manages to get beyond that subdued state, and I get bored to tears.
So anyway, I might not think this is the greatest album in the world or anything, but I like it well enough. It's a good thing to listen to at work, I've discovered. It's a gentle blur. It's not really a whole lot worse in quality than Steady On, but considering that one was just teetering on an 11, and this album has such a weak second half, I'm afraid I'll have to go with a regrettably lukewarm 10/15.