Shawn Colvin

  • Shawn Colvin
  • Live Tape [tape] (no label) 1988 
  • Steady On (Columbia) 1989 

The career of this South Dakota-born New Yorker offers an object lesson in the danger of major labels. Colvin’s eight-song Live Tape, recorded in Massachusetts in 1988, is as enchanting a collection of acoustic songs as one could imagine. Accompanying her extraordinary pipes with just a guitar, Colvin hurls herself into folky material with an utterly distinctive, jazzy voice that flutters and swoops in a most affecting way. And aside from occasional forays into the Joni Mitchell/Suzanne Vega school of precious, self-indulgent lyrics, each of these eight songs is hauntingly, simply beautiful.

So what happened? Featuring new versions of six Live Tape songs, Steady On is bland, overproduced, radio-ready drivel. Vega producer Steve Addabbo and John Leventhal (Colvin’s songwriting partner and guitarist) layer on schlocky session playing and synthesizers to the point where the individuality of Colvin’s voice and songs is all but lost.

Colvin sang backup on “Luka,” and Vega returns the favor here. It’s ironic that while Colvin has more vocal range and expressiveness than Vega, not to mention melodic imagination, Steady On¬†attempts to emulate her. It’s also worth noting that “Another Long One,” the one track Colvin produced by herself, is the album’s sparest and most moving moment.

[Wif Stenger]

See also: Suzanne Vega