Fat City (Columbia)
Shawn Colvin

By Kory Wilcoxson

Shawn Colvin made an immediate name for herself on the folk scene with her stunningly beautiful debut album, Steady On. It earned her respect across several genres of music and a Grammy award.

So how do you follow up such an acclaimed first impression? It's an impossible and thankless task, but Colvin proves her first outing was no fluke with an interesting mixture of sap and spice on Fat City. It should no doubt entrench her position in the upper echelon of women songwriters/performers, alongside such notables as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith and the Indigo Girls.

Drawing on the styles of her contemporaries, Colvin has created an intensely personal and deeply touching album. It's as if she tested the emotional waters with her first album and, finding them satisfactory, plunged in head first.

Whether brimming with vigor or weighted down by sadness, each song is a bittersweet snippet from a well-worn love life. The opening track, "Polaroids," is a voyage on the rough seas of summer romance. The surprising vulnerability displayed in the song make it a risky opening number, but Colvin makes it work elegantly with a mixture of compassion and remorse.

Don't think, however, this is an album full of lonely love songs. The second track, "Tennessee," which is taken to a higher plane by the banjo playing of Bela Fleck, is a rowdy testimonial to the sometimes fatal attraction of stardom in the Volunteer State.

"Now I know you're not to blame/But you know that you should have told me/That I would never be the same/After riding down your back roads," Colvin sings almost scoldingly.

Colvin's work would be good if she couldn't write her way out of a paper bag, simply because she possesses one of the most instantly moving voices in music. She seems to have 1,000 inflections and can mold her sound like clay to fit the emotion.

But the good news is she can write, and does so with passion, tenderness and humor. On "Monopoly," as she sings of the pain of a lost love, she observes, "I don't like to be so weak/Retreating behind these lines/The same old tongue and cheek/Regretting that both are mine."

The introspective theme of the album is momentarily broken by "Climb On (A Back That's Strong)," a ray of light among dark clouds much like "Trouble Me" was on the 10,000 Maniacs Blind Man's Zoo. The feel-good aura may seem slightly out of place among its more somber peers, but that's overridden by the tune's pure infectiousness.

Fat City is a reiteration of Colvin's masterful handle on human emotions. She seems completely comfortable examining the human condition, and is at her best when that condition is her own.