As a teenager in the 1990s, hunting for CDs to feed my music addiction was pretty much my sole concern in life. This was a time when new releases were still quite costly, so bargain bins and second-hand shops were usually where I went looking for treasure. Prohibitively expensive import CDs were a forbidden extravagance but once a year, on my birthday I allowed myself the purchase of just one deliciously overpriced disc. I would be recklessly impulsive, routinely choosing something I’d never heard before. In 1996, the year I turned 19, that disc was Shawn Colvin's A Few Small Repairs.
Although it was her third major label release, Colvin, at that time, was not well known in the UK. That was all about to change because by 1997 'Sunny Came Home' had become a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic and earned Colvin two Grammy awards. The album subsequently went platinum in the US and, to celebrate its twentieth birthday, Sony are putting out a full remaster of the original release, replete with seven bonus live tracks - a mix of solo acoustic and full band recordings from the period. This means that I can now justify the opportunity to have a bit of a gush about one of my all-time favourite records of all-time, mate.
The album's first single 'Get Out of This House' appealed to fans of the feisty-female genre popularised by Alanis Morissette and Meredith Brooks in the middle nineties and comes across like a righteously pissed off Sheryl Crow. It's a blistering juggernaut: pounding and energetic, crowned by its howling harmonica line, helping the song unleash its rage and setting the tone for the rest of the record.
A Few Small Repairs is littered with songs about breaking free and starting over (it's probably worth mentioning that Colvin divorced her first husband a year before its release) and while 'Get Out of This House' sat well with the zeitgeist, it was ‘Sunny Came Home’ - the album's second single - that really made everyone stand up and take notice. It’s the tale of a woman metaphorically putting her house in order by literally burning it to the ground. This could be read as incitement to arson (or at the very least as incitement to the misuse of a toolkit) for anyone who finds themselves downtrodden by domesticity. However, the seam of destruction in the lyric is countered by the song’s cosy mandolin intro and blissfully melodic singalong chorus and this, for me, is a big part of Colvin's appeal: sweetness and darkness, constantly encircling one another.
These two tracks open the album and alone they are a clear indication that Colvin and long-time collaborator John Leventhal are on the form of their lives, both in terms of songwriting and vision. The production is every good word you can think of (exquisite, glorious and inspired are the first three that come to mind) with multi-instrumentalist Leventhal turning in some of the most beautiful and tasteful guitar playing of his career; and it’s of all persuasions: tremolo-flooded clean parts; dirty, impassioned lead breaks; textural pedal steel swirls. All the dream toppings that Shawn Colvin could wish for on her already accomplished acoustic backbones are there. And that’s before we even mention Leventhal’s contributions on keyboard, bass, mandolin and harmonica. As a partner in crime, this one-man musical freak-of-nature is any singer-songwriter’s dream come true and, as a consequence, it seems clear that ‘A Few Small Repairs’ is just as much Leventhal’s baby as it is Colvin’s.
Where were we? Ah yes, track three... and the riches continue to pour forth. ‘The Facts About Jimmy’ is a brooding and resigned cautionary tale about an all-too lovable rogue; the suitably enigmatic ‘You & the Mona Lisa’ has another sun-drenched chorus and fan favourite ‘Trouble’ deals with disaffection, disappointment, dependence and the inevitable allure of bad things, bad people and bad situations. Its arrangement is spare and dark, spotlighting Colvin’s trademark percussive guitar style with which she made her mark on her 1989 debut Steady On.
The laid-back regret and bitterness of ‘I Want It Back’ is as close as we get to straight Americana with crunchy steel guitar and hefty slabs of Hammond organ. This gives way to the almost debilitating self-deprecation of ‘If I Were Brave’, which is starker: just voice and piano with the subtlest dusting of string quartet and clarinet. It’s the palate-cleanser that this otherwise lavishly-dressed record needs. The band re-enter ever-so-gently with the wistful travelling song ‘Wichita Skyline’, paying subtle homage to the great Glen Campbell. Then the clouds roll in again for ’84,000 Different Delusions’ which heralds yet more despair and resignation as well as soft beaten drums (all hail Shawn Pelton whose stick marks are all over the record too) and a mournful recorder solo. Yep, you heard me, recorder solo.
At this point the album meanders just a little: ‘Suicide Alley’ feels too straightforward somehow and ‘What I Get Paid For’, co-written with Neil Finn, is out of step with the rest of the record, featuring a different band and lacking, as it does, Leventhal’s input. Things are more than redeemed, though, as Colvin’s voice cracks with fragility on ‘New Thing Now’, another refreshingly naked guitar-and-voice affair. The song also ushers in the positivity and hope with which the album is to close: ‘Nothing On Me’ is decidedly jaunty, playing us out with a wink and a swagger. It’s a song about getting up, dusting yourself off, and walking out the door to the future, with your fingers in your ears to anyone who tries to talk you down or hold you back. This upbeat finish is, of course, made all the more powerful in its contrast to what has come before.
By turns cathartic and euphoric; heavy and weightless; defiant and delicate, A Few Small Repairs is an album that everyone should own. And I mean Everyone, capital E. If you missed out the first time around then my advice is to splash out and treat yourself to this - on vinyl if you like! Go for it! - Just pretend it’s your birthday.
Review by Rich Barnard.