When Joan Baez, the Grand Dame of modern folk music, went to work on her
most recent album, she tapped singers Dar Williams and Richard Shindell for
several songs that would become a bridge between older and newer
generations of the genre.
Now those two musicians -- joined with Greenwich Village new-folk veteran
Lucy Kaplansky under the name Cry Cry Cry -- are once again connecting the
genre's past with its future. On 12 tracks that they describe as "songs we
love" -- songs penned by a range of current writers -- they offer an
updated interpretation of folk music's traditional sonic intimacy and
Williams', Shindell's and Kaplansky's voices take turns on these songs, but
when one is in the spotlight, the others are right behind. Williams' silvery
low tones and keening high ones, Shindell's warm, reedy tenor and
Kaplansky's rounded, almost twangy voice blend together beautifully on
songs like Buddy Mondlock's oft-covered "The Kid" and Greg Brown's funny
"Lord, I Have Made You a Place in My Heart."
The collection opens with an unexpected selection: R.E.M.'s "Fall on Me."
Williams' voice takes the lead here in a rendition that remains loyal to
the original. The song's theme of technology versus nature is one that has
always been close to the heart of the folk movement. Its delivery here
underscores the wide influence of folk traditions on rock music -- and of
rock on folk. Shindell's harmony on the bridge even sounds a little like
Michael Stipe's friendly voice.
Shindell takes the lead on two songs with strong narratives: Robert Earl
Keen's "Shades of Gray" -- a wild tale of modern-day outlaws -- and James
Keelaghan's heart-wrenching "Cold Missouri Waters." The latter brings to
life the recollections of a dying retired-firefighter. The song chronicles
the first time a fireman created a safe zone within a forest fire by
burning a circle in the brush around himself. He survived -- but 13 of his
crew died in the blaze.
Shindell's sympathetic vocals heighten the story's immediacy and horror;
Williams' and Kaplansky's harmonies sound as if they were angels who saved
this man when the fire seemed against him: "In that world reduced to ashes,
there were none but two survived/ I stayed that night and one day
after/ Carried bodies to the river, wondered how I stayed alive." Guitarist
Billy Masters, who's worked in Williams' latest touring ensemble, creates a
harrowing collection of guitar textures that round out the piece.
Kaplansky -- whose roots are in the folk scene that also nurtured Shawn
Colvin, Nanci Griffith, John Gorka and Suzanne Vega -- shines on "Speaking
With the Angel," written by acclaimed songwriter Ron Sexmith. But her
delivery of Julie Miller's "By Way of Sorrow" seems the album's pivotal
moment, given the record's title of Cry, Cry, Cry. Her voice is soft
and subtle, almost like a mother singing to a child. "You who once were
left behind/ Will be welcome at love's table," she promises. Her rendition
of Jim Armenti's country-rock "Down by the Water" is also a delight, fusing
a lovelorn lyric with images of historic mill-town imagery over a bouncy
The trio performs an arresting, a cappella "Northern Cross," written by
Leslie Smith. The solo voices transform the pining melody into a hymn: "So
meet me on Red Mountain/ Lace of laurel, bed of moss/ Where the wind's
forever howling beneath that Northern Cross." Williams' and Kaplansky's
duet on the Nields' "I Know What Kind of Love This Is" is appropriately
sad, almost numbed. Told from the perspective of a high-school girl who
allows herself to be taken by "the big man in the town ... to end a
lifetime of wallflower shade," this version is almost prettier than its
Cry, Cry, Cry closes with Williams and Shindell dueting on
Shindell's own fantastic "The Ballad of Mary Magdalen." Williams gives the
song its due in her soft, human tones: "Jesus loved me, this I know/ Why on
earth did I ever let him go?/ He was always faithful, he was always kind/ But
he walked off with this heart of mine."
The folk musicians of America have blessed the music world with some of its
most stunning songwriting; there isn't much to hide behind with just a
voice and a guitar, so storytelling is the obvious path for these
musicians. On Cry, Cry, Cry, Williams, Kaplansky and Shindell make a
powerful case for the folk tradition's present and future relevance.