Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

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.)


Bigger than both of us

November 23rd, 2013

Anoushka_ShankarLast night I saw Anoushka Shankar at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington. My mother took me to see her father, the great Ravi Shankar, when I was a teenager.  My recollection is that he performed in a junior high school auditorium, and that may indeed have been the case.  Back in those days, I don’t think Ravi Shankar would have been filling concert halls in places like Buffalo, New York.  I might be wrong, though.  Maybe I saw him at Kleinhans.  Be that as it may, it was the beginning of a lifelong love of Indian classical music for me.  Now Anoushka is selling out the Flynn, and she is very much her father’s daughter, and very much her own person.

So-called “world” and “fusion” music generally doesn’t do much for me. The Mahavishnu Orchestra and its like bore me to tears.  All their virtuosity produces nothing more than spectacular noodling; they seem to be masters of nothing but their instruments.  Paul Winter et al. are pretty ornaments for the holiday season, but not much more.  In short, I find most of it empty and/or shallow. 

 Not so with Anoushka Shankar.  A master of the northern Indian classical tradition, she also has thoroughly assimilated our culture’s music.  She is not striving to create a fusion, she is the fusion.  Consequently, when she joins her sitar with a piano, and cellos, and a trap drum set in addition to a tabla and shenai and mridangam, and even throws in what sounded to me very much like chords on the sitar (is that possible?), and weaves harmonic structures in together with straight-ahead Indian raga-based voice-and-rhythm, it all sounds seamless, deep, and authentic.  (And there are layers upon layers of “fusion” here.  Mridangam and shenai are based in the south Indian musical tradition, whereas the sitar and tabla are north Indian. Maybe we should call this “laminated” music.)  What “authentic” means in this context I can’t really say, except I knows it when I hears it.  It has something to do with integrity and directness of expression.

I was transported, in that lovely way the best Indian classical music can do. The sounds took me over and washed me clean.  But this had something extra.  Very often, in a classical Indian concert, I do not have a clear understanding of what I am responding to, because I did not grow up with the tradition and I don’t really “get” the meanings of its inflections and vocabulary.  The program notes, for example, will tell me “this is an evening raga which inspires a sense of peacefulness and devotion.”  Well, alright, but what makes it different from a morning raga or a late-midafternoon snacktime raga?  Got me.  And what is so peaceful and devoted about this last section where the sitar is going like the blazes and the tabla player’s hands are a blur? By contrast, Anoushka’s music, which is steeped in my language, speaks to me.  She manages to combine the personal expressiveness of western music with the impersonal spirituality of her native tradition.  It’s a powerful combination.  The example from the concert that comes to mind is “In Jyoti’s Name,” inspired by the woman who was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi last year.  Beware: on the CD, which seems to be tailored for western ears, this piece is considerably watered down.  Heard live last night, it was a meditation on grief and rage that managed to comprehend both the personal and the collective aspects of these emotions, and also presented them as forces in their own right.

I sometimes think I must be a tiresome person to sit next to at an Indian music concert, if I am enjoying it, because my head bobs and waves ceaselessly and I tap my feet and bounce in my chair.  Can’t help it, I’m afraid.  This is bigger than both of us.


Late breaking joy

December 24th, 2011

I had just sat down at my computer this morning, thinking that there is nothing I can usefully add to the welter of comment, analysis, reminiscence, and blether about this season, when I came across this little gem of purity of spirit.   Sit back, sigh, and enjoy.

Alle Snakker Sant

December 18th, 2011

Siri Nilsen

First, a couple of disclaimers.

Siri Nilsen is the daughter of Shari Nilsen, whom I knew back when she was jus’ plain li’l Shari Gerber back in the ‘hood.  Shari had long straight black hair, perfect olive skin, considerable personal beauty, and one of those pure angelic soprano voices.  Kind of like a short, Jewish, Buffalonian Joan Baez, only more buxom.  She was a year ahead of me at Kenmore West Senior High, and I used to go listen to her play her guitar and sing folk music at the Rue Franklin coffeehouse.  I had a hopelessly unconsummated crush on her, of which she was either entirely unaware or in denial.  But we were good friends.  (Ouch!)  A few years out of high school we lost contact.  She went on to marry and then divorce a Norwegian folk musician, Lillebjorn Nilsen.  No, I never heard of him, either, but he is a big deal in Norway.  Siri is one of their daughters.  Not long ago, Shari and I came back into contact via Facebook.  So that’s how I know of Siri.

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Mary Fahl in Colchester, 9/17/10

September 18th, 2010

About four months ago, to celebrate the publication of To Join the Lost,* I organized a house concert for Mary Fahl.  This Friday, I had the good fortune to attend another one.  At my house concert, when I asked Mary what she would like me to say as an introduction, she told me to speak from the heart and to keep it short.  So I did.  But seeing her again has revived thoughts of all the things I could have said.  Here are some of them.

Each time she begins a song, it is a shock, the transition from an ordinary world in which a beautiful (but not too much so) woman stands in front of you with a guitar, chatting and joking and generally being charming and intelligent, into another place entirely.  It is as if one opens a door and a huge wind comes through and blows the world away.  Then the song ends and there she is, winsome as ever, with her stage patter.  And even though you think you are ready for it, the next time she opens her mouth to sing there it is again, that wind and the huge red sun and suddenly nothing else.

There is the matter of her stage presence.  I think the shock of hearing her sing is partly due to that.  We exist only in relationship.  The Mary Fahl who exists in relationship with her audience, I am sure, like any performer relating to an audience, exists nowhere else.  But there are certain performers, like Mary, who appear to relate to the group watching them so easily and naturally, that it is easy for the group to believe that yes, this is who she is, she is being herself for me, as if she had no other selves – this is the “real” one.  From there it is a short step to that sense of intimacy that is so similar to the intimacy we feel when we are enjoying the company of another person, alone together.  She is telling me things about herself, she is funny, she is interesting.  It is like being with a friend.  It invites us to react to her from that part of ourselves which is capable of intimacy, that soft place of giving and receiving and mirroring laughter and tenderness.  

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