Most new pop music falls into one of two sound categories – super-human slick or slacker sloppy. In this sonically schizophrenic environment, it’s refreshing to hear a release that chooses the middle ground. Lucy Kaplansky’s latest release combines solid songwriting with euphonic production values, and reminds us that there’s no substitute for well-crafted and sympathetically arranged music.
Kaplansky’s career started in the early ’80s when she migrated to New York City and immediately found a place in the burgeoning music scene, singing with the likes of John Gorka, Suzanne Vega, and Cliff Eberhardt. She even formed a duo with Shawn Colvin, but left music to pursue a career in psychology. After earning a PhD, Kaplansky worked in a NYC hospital. Although she occasionally did background-vocal gigs, she did not pursue a musical career path. In 1994, Kapalnsky released her first solo album, largely at the urging of Colvin, who wanted to be her producer. The Tide jump-started her performing career to the point that she soon had to close her psychology practice.
Over The Hills combines five original tunes co-written by Kaplansky and her husband, Richard Litvin, with classics written by Bryan Ferry, June Carter, Loudon Wainwright III, Julie Miller, and Ian Tyson. The Bryan Ferry song “More Than This” is the most surprising choice. Originally released on Roxy Music’s Avalon choc-a-block with synthesizers and atmospheric effects, Kaplansky’s version strips the gothic artifice to reveal good bones. Her rendition of the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire” brings the song back to a female perspective that’s closer to June Carter’s original concept than Johnny’s macho stance. The strongest original song on the album is “Amelia” which paints a heartbreakingly beautiful picture of a woman’s regrets and hope.
Produced by veteran acoustic and folk specialist Ben Wittman, Over The Hills never sounds overblown or thick. The arrangements allow the veteran band that includes Larry Campbell (electric guitar, mandolin, dobro, pedal steel), Duke Levine (electric guitar), Stephan Crump (electric bass), and Ben Wittman (drums and percussion) to do what they do best; play with taste and control. Guest vocalists include Buddy Miller, Eliza Gilkyson, Richard Shindell, and Jonatha Brooke. The overall sound serves the songs, so during every selection you think, “What a wonderful song!” not, “What great sound!” or “What a super solo!” Yes, this is a songwriter’s album.
If you appreciate superior songs delivered with feeling, Over The Hills will hit all the right spots in your musical pleasure centers.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jun. ’07 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.