Archive for February, 2014

Close to the Core

February 7th, 2014

Mary_Fahl_performingMary Fahl‘s new solo record, Love and Gravity, is out on Amazon this week.  If you already know what Mary Fahl sounds like, all you need to know about this album is that it more faithfully represents her than any other recording I know of. If you don’t know what she sounds like, buy it. You’re in for a treat.

When talking about the former lead singer for October Project, the place to start is with her voice. It’s “a voice for the gods” according to Steve Morse of the Boston Globe, but that kind of throwing-hands-in-the-air hyperbole doesn’t tell you much except that the writer was blown away. Which may be all the information you need. I’d add that Mary’s rich contralto is oceanic in its variety of color, range of mood, flexibility, subtlety, and power. She has a unique sound, velvety and luscious. To pile on a few more adjectives, her singing is passionate, emotionally direct and genuine, and sensitive to all a song’s nuances. A few more: she sings with high intelligence, deep emotional maturity, and the wisdom of experience.

Love and Gravity consists primarily of love songs, both covers and originals. The covers are generally stronger than the originals, as Mary is a stronger interpreter than songwriter.  She is a fine judge of a good song.  Her songwriting is uneven, ranging from pedestrian to brilliant.  An example of the former on this album would be Exiles, an unfortunate late addition to the collection; but it is redeemed by a ringing performance.  An example of the latter is Johnny and June, inspired by Mr. and Mrs. Cash.  The first time I heard this country-flavored ode to perseverance in the face of romantic disappointment, a few years ago, my reaction was “Holy shit!”   An eclectic artist, Mary has proved on other recordings that she can sing just about anything convincingly; her stylistic core revolves around celtic influence, american roots, chamber pop, and modern folk music, and that is what is mostly represented on this album. Mary has stretched herself stylistically elsewhere; this collection holds closer to the core.

The production is relatively spare and tasteful, for today’s pop music. Producer John Lissauer, who was responsible for Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah among others, has the good sense to give Mary a supportive atmospheric setting and then mostly stay out of her way. I do have one quibble: in song after song, Lissauer tints Mary’s voice with a hint of big room echo. It’s not bad, but why gild the lily? It interferes with our ability to hear clearly a great vocal instrument. She doesn’t need varnish or embellishment! On your next album, Mary, please insist that the producer stay the hell away from the effects kit. But, as I said, this is just a quibble.

After a couple of dozen listenings, the record holds up well. Nothing sounds tired, nothing’s weak, nothing’s stale. There are no songs I find myself wanting to skip in order to get to the good stuff. At this point, four songs stand out for me. “How Much Love” beautifully captures that point in a failing relationship when the pursuer begins to question whether the game is worth the candle. “Under the Cottonwoods” expresses the memory of erotic fulfillment so completely you may want to turn over after hearing it and have a cigarette. The lovely “Sirens” defies genre. “Both Sides Now” exemplifies the saying that a good artist borrows, a great artist steals, by making the song indelibly Mary’s. No, I lie. “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” also never fails to pick me up, so that’s five.  Okay, six – “Johnny and June,” about which I already told you.  But you will have your own favorites, and I will probably have a different list tomorrow. What I’m trying to say is, how many records offer an experience that stays alive and keeps growing deeper after months of repeated listening? This is one of them.

(Full disclosure: I have written promotional materials for Mary, for hire. The present review, however, is entirely uncompensated.)

 

Writing on a Wall

February 1st, 2014

Portsmouth,_New_Hampshire_-_bridgeIt’s nice that the President has noticed that our country has a problem with “income inequality,” as it is the fashion to call it, or, as I call it, excessive numbers of excessively rich and excessively poor people.  In the spirit of the time, I would like to forward some words from a person who was professionally concerned with the topic.  This is printed on a poster in the conference room at the Vermont Department for Children and Families’ Morrisville District Office. David Murray, who wrote it, was a long time employee of the Department’s Economic Services Division.  Or, as we used to call it when things had names that meant anything, the social welfare department. He passed away a few years ago.  Please forgive the acronyms and references to outdated programs.  I think you’ll get the gist.

I was sitting in a Voc Rehab office this morning with a person who is at ETC and has medical barriers to work. To help pass the time I asked what her kids were doing this summer and she told me they were doing volunteer work. Then she asked me if I was taking a vacation this summer. I said yes, the family and I were going to Maine for a week. She thought that was nice and said she had never been to Maine. This woman is my age – over forty. I thought it odd that she had never been to Maine, as most people seem to go there to see the ocean, so I asked her if she had gone to New Hampshire to see the ocean. She said, “No, I have never seen the ocean.”

This may show how naïve I am, but this amazed me. I can remember as a kid headed for Maine for the first time, my parents told me that the water was so wide I wouldn’t be able to see the other side. I didn’t believe them. How could anything be that big? But it was and when I got there I was thrilled at the sight!

She is forty-something years old, lives five or six hours from the ocean and has never seen it. She has been on welfare for a long time and can be called one of the “hard to serve.” Are these facts connected? Who can say? If this were 1986 and I were still an SPOP worker (ask an older co-worker if you don’t know what this means) I would suggest she save up her SPOP allowances for a few months and use the money to go see the ocean. Maybe then I would have my answer.

In the rush of ETL dates, conciliations, sanctions, job placements, assessments and all the rest, I think we need to keep some perspective, especially with the hard to serve. We need to keep in mind that it might be hard to see a future if you haven’t seen the ocean.

You all know there are many things the hard to serve haven’t seen besides the ocean. Like supportive parents and spouses, praise for jobs well done, involvement in constructive school activities and on and on and on.

Our job is to help people see the future. Maybe that should be one of the questions on the assessment form, “Can you see your future; have you seen the ocean?