Lucid Culture


Susan McKeown’s Darkly Inspiring New Album

Sad music isn’t depressing – on the contrary, it’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so popular. This is one sad album – and a very ambitious one. On Singing in the Dark, Irish/American singer Susan McKeown has taken a series of poems dealing with death, depression and madness from over the centuries and set them to music, along with a choice cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem that offers just a glimmer of a respite. She sings them clearly and directly, with a tinge of a brittle vibrato which fits these lyrics well – she goes in with both eyes open but not quite steady, and at its best the effect is nothing short of chilling. Among Americana singers, Kelli Rae Powell comes to mind.

Over darkly reverb-drenched, Richard Thompson-esque electric rock, McKeown takes Anne Sexton’s A Woman Like That (Her Kind) and uses it to transpose the archetype of a witch to the present day, “a woman that is not a woman” ostracized for her sadness and unafraid to die for it. A Gwendolyn Brooks poem, That Crazy Woman is set to a swinging 6/8 piano melody: “I’ll wait until November, that is the time for me,” McKeown sings with a quiet defiance, and a nod to Nina Simone. Renaissance poet John Dowland’s death-obsessed In Darkness Let Me Dwell gets a subdued, Andalusian-flavored treatment, while 19th century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan’s The Nameless One, one of several suicide songs here, gets a low-key, acoustic folk arrangement.

The most ambitious track here is The Crack in the Stairs, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s vividly imagistic depiction of clinical depression set to an minimalist, atonal piano melody by contemporary Irish composer Elaine Agnew, taking on a macabre music-box touch as McKeown chronicles the dust on the furniture and the piano hidden beneath a lock rusted shut. Richard and Linda Thompson again come to mind on Mad Sweeney, a brooding rock arrangement of a traditional song about a king whose madness literally returns him to a state of nature, and also on Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis’s Angel of Depression. McKeown wrings every drop of pain she can muster out of the chorus: “Oh yes, I’m broken, but my limp is the best part of me…and the way I hurt,” guitar limping along to drive the point home. There’s also the evocative, jazz-tinged smalltown death vignette Good Old World Blues, an Elis Regine-inspired version of Violetta Parra’s bitter, sarcastic Gracias a la Vida and an understatedly gloomy take of the traditional Irish song So We’ll Go No More A-Roving to wind up the album. Susan McKeown plays Highline Ballroom on January 15.

December 7, 2010 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Isabelle O’Connell’s Dark, Deep Reservoir

Irish pianist Isabelle O’Connell’s new album Reservoir is compelling collection of dark, serious solo pieces by contemporary composers from her native land. It’s a mix of the deceptively simple and the rigorously difficult, performed with a grace and dignity that does justice to the intensity of the compositions. The title track, by Donnacha Dennehy, is particularly gripping. With its incessant quarter-note insistence and interlocking astringent chords, it’s evocative of Louis Andriessen and it’s also obviously very difficult to hold on a steady course. O’Connell meets the challenge with a steely resolve. Big, by Ian Wilson, is a smallscale partita with distant echoes of Brahms, moving from a big chordal introduction to scurrying righthand against an incisive staccato, finally winding out on a hypnotic circular phrase. O’Connell follows that with Jane O’Leary’s aptly titled miniature Forgotten Worlds and its terse, rippling glimmer. Seoirse Bodley’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a spacious narrative, grows from austerely rustic to more lively as the journey through the brush finally reaches its destination.

John Buckley’s Three Preludes gleam with a bracing disquiet, the first a series of methodically paced, off-center arpeggios; the second, an eerie, chromatically-charged waltz; the third more stately and Chopinesque. Three pieces (nos. 10, 11 and 13) from The Klippel Collection by Brian Irvine offer both satirical and straightforwardly Romantically tinged melody as well as a deliciously Satie-esque prelude of sorts. And Philip Martin’s Along the Flaggy Shore is desolately creepy, a spaciously wintry scene that ends with a single note of vocalese – a ghost, maybe?

There’s also some humor here as well. Elaine Agnew’s Seagull is a playful yet dignified salute to the shorebird – it stops and starts but also gazes out to sea with a wistful poignancy, then takes a briskly tense, perfectly executed walk up and down the beach. And Jennifer Walshe’s Becher is a genuinely hilarious pastiche of dozens of famous intros and outros from Beethoven, Scott Joplin, the Verve, Chopin, and perhaps most amusingly, Grieg, who really gets a sendup here as one of his most famous motifs gets sent up the scale and morphs into the Beatles. O’Connell plays the segues absolutely deadpan and absolutely tight – it’s impossible to resist pausing and then rewinding because the jokes are flying by so fast.

December 1, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment