February 7th, 2014
Mary 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.)