Claudia Schmidt's New Whirled Order Makes Old Ideas New Again

New Whirled Order
Red House Records 275
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The youth of every generation tend to believe that what’s hot is “new.” Is Claudia Schmidt’s new album folk music, jazz, or spoken word? Yes, yes, and yes. Schmidt isn’t trying to be cool–she just is. That’s the way she’s been doing things long before today’s young whipperhipsters were even born. Call New Whirled Order a mature album whose direct antecedents are a mélange of 1950s modal jazz, the ethos of Beat poetry, and the Folk Revival’s unleashing of singer-songwriters and its recovery of forgotten instruments.  Schmidt’s opening track, “Already,” highlights the way one can integrate dulcimer, accordion, percussion, and guitar, and her scale-smashing vocals occupy the space you might expect a rhythm section to appear*

Schmidt’s folk material tends toward poignant themes such as “Sea of Forgiveness,” with a lone oboe adding wistful notes to the mix, or “Jane’s Gone,” a lullaby-like lilt dedicated to her recently deceased mother. But this album’s overall tone is joyful, not melancholic. The themes in “Coward in the Face of Love” are serious, but the melody is bouncy, the hooks memorable, and Schmidt’s soaring notes are evocative of Motown. For comic relief, Schmidt offers “Strong Woman Has a Bad Day Polka,” a song indicative of her penchant for turning prosaic observations into offbeat humor. This time Betsy Dorris’ oboe sounds like it swallowed a piccolo.

Schmidt exercises her jazz muse on “Dawn Star,” whose melody she co-wrote with guitarist Dean Magraw. The lyrics are poetic and sung with a soulful coolness evocative of Chet Baker. By contrast, “Sometime Ago” is piano-based cool jazz with scat interludes–more in the Helen Morrill tradition with Ella Fitzgerald breakouts. Want more jazzy departures? I was surprised to find that “Nothing” was one of hers and not something from Leonard Cohen’s backlist. Then there is pure poetry–her paean to the unspoken in “Longing,” which is bookended by dulcimer/guitar instrumentation and Schmidt’s angelic warbles. Schmidt takes us across styles and across time, so what better way to end than with a round– also dedicated to her mother–in which Sally Rogers, Howie Bursen, and Jeff Davis add their voices. What a perfect title–New Whirled Order draws upon musical ideas so old they’re new again.  

Rob Weir

 * The YouTube version of "Already" lacks the accordion of the studio version, but this is a high-quality video that proves Claudia is even more dynamic live.

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