Archive for December, 2019

A fire opal in a plain gold band

December 11th, 2019

(review of Mary Fahl CD, Winter Songs and Carols)

This is an astonishing record.

First, you need to know that I have always hated Christmas music.  Partly, this is the result of growing up Jewish in a dominantly Christian country. One can stand only so much of having one’s nose rubbed in outsider status.  More to the point, Christmas music is almost always fetishistic and false, by turns lugubriously sentimental, grandiose, or animated by a ghastly sprightliness, the aural equivalent of lipstick on a corpse.  To enter a retail establishment at this season and to be assaulted by its sound system is to be grateful for online shopping. How do store clerks stand it and not go mad?  Blaring nonstop for week after week in public places, it is a totentanz of the emotions, a symptom of the repetition compulsion that forces so many Americans to attempt to overcome the disappointments of their childhoods by constructing an idealized and inevitably disappointing revisitation of them.  Such emotion as seeps through is a strangulated cry for relief from self-loathing.

Now, Mary Fahl and Mark Doyle have given us an album that shows what Christmas music could be, if it were honest, direct, simple, heartfelt, free of irony and neurosis, unadorned by ego.  Listening to this, I said to myself, “At last, I get it.”

Winter Songs and Carols succeeds by paring away everything extraneous to the music’s message and by focusing clearly on that. I think it marks a new stage in Mary Fahl’s maturation as an artist.  She has sometimes been characterized as a belter, and it is true that she doesn’t hesitate to unleash her extraordinary power.  But here, the singing comes to us primarily from places of tenderness, imbued with passion that can swell into revelation or be ridden upon as a submerged energy source.  We’ve heard this before from her, though never, I think, so fully integrated.  What is newer, to my ears, is a simple dignity in Mary’s performances that I am used to associating with very great singers like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. There is no need to “sell the song” or “put it across”; the singer resides at the heart of the music and allows the song to speak to us directly.  Again, that may have been there before, but never so consistently.

Mark Doyle provides spare settings for the miracle of Mary’s voice, relying chiefly on acoustic guitars and a string chamber group. Pairing Mary with strings emphasizes her voice’s subtle textures and richness.  Unlike Mary’s producer on some previous projects, the somewhat heavy-handed and usually uninspired John Lissauer, Doyle sees no need to gild the lily.  He mixes her voice forward, keeps the rest of the production in the background where it belongs, and lets her shine.  The final song of the album starts a capella, and the rightness of this is immediately apparent.  Mary is a singer who needs no accompaniment.  For all its quietness, it is a climactic moment.

Lest I be thought besottedly uncritical, I’ll say that I have quibbles, if no more than that, regarding two aspects of the production. First, the arrangement for In the Bleak Midwinter contains a string ensemble instrumental break that is schmaltzy, clichéd, and over-the-top.  It is so out of keeping with the rest of the album that I suspect it may be intentionally so, a reference to the chintzy kitsch that this project so determinedly and successfully otherwise avoids.  Either way, I could have done without it.  If you’re going for unself-consciousness and lack of irony, it’s best to stick to that.

Second, there is some indulgence in reverb and echo effects on Mary’s voice.  For the most part, it is innocuous.  She’s well recorded and, as I said, mixed far forward, so not much is lost.  I’ve written about this elsewhere.  I think it’s the kind of blemish introduced by excessive perfectionism.  I think it becomes slightly more problematic on Ave Maria.  Here it sounds to me like a failure of confidence.  Lacking formal vocal training (!), Mary may be a bit intimidated by classical repertoire.  I wonder if she employs the mechanical device in an effort to achieve a kind of idealized smoothly flawless operatic tone, which indeed this airbrushing may approximate, but at the cost of some genuinity and humanity and, for that reason, diminished impact.

The record consists entirely of covers, ranging from Schubert to Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen by way of the Wexford Carol, What Child Is This, and the painfully lovely Walking In the Air (from the short film The Snowman), among others.  Restrainedly eclectic, you might call it, a collection of strong, simple tunes from a range of sources.  The album’s unembellished, unforced, straight-from-the-heart strategy relies heavily on the quality of the material.  There’s not a dud song in the lot.  Even the chestnuts are fresh, as if heard for the first time.  Case in point: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, a song debuted by Judy Garland back in 1944.  Mary’s rendition hews very close to the simplicity (there’s that word again), directness (ditto), and conversational tone of the original, with a feeling of spontaneity – she could be saying this to you as it comes to her. Her vibrato is tighter than Garland’s, her tone and pitch if anything truer, but something in the richness of her vocal quality and her apparently artless, natural manner harkens back to Judy.  But it’s not mere impersonation.  The personality wishing you well is unmistakeably Mary’s.

All the singing is this impeccably wonderful, set like a fire opal in a plain gold band.  Buy this album, even if you hate Christmas music.  Think of it as just plain music, of the best kind, appropriate to the time of year.