Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Maia Macdonald – Islands Are Born

Singer-songwriter Maia Macdonald quotes Rachel Carson on the page for her new cd Islands Are Born: “It is one of the paradoxes in the way of earth and sea that a process seemingly so destructive, so catastrophic in nature, can result in an act of creation.” Aptly put. This is a pensive, evocative, resonant meditation on distance and absence. What’s strongest here are Macdonald’s casually soulful voice and her thoughtful, direct lyrics, set to sparsely fingerpicked guitar. Boston is where it all begins, where the narrator finds the guy. Not everything here is dark and wary, as when, completely out of the blue, Macdonald says “testing.” Of course, it’s a loaded statement. “Nice is not open,” is the mantra that recurs tellingly at the end. By the way, why does Boston figure so frequently and so poignantly in breakups? Mary-kate O’Neil’s Green Street, Steve Wynn’s Boston, now this?

The title track is the initial breakup – or the separation, since there’s far less rancor here than simple wistfulness and longing: “Islands are born as you disengage.” The next cut, Some Success is spiced with bass, percussion and plaintively echoey electric guitar accents: “You’re out in the midwest you confess, hiding with some success. And the isolation”coats me with too much whiskey, wine.” The City Is Sea foreshadows  resolution, and it’s not optimistic: “There’s a reason I’m staying here, it’s the simple life I fear.” A storm hits, she runs to the kitchen: “You asked me where I went, I said where I have wings…sometime in the summertime, you’ll find a box of tapes we wrote.” All of a sudden there’s a new level of meaning here: a band breakup, ouch.

Set to a charmingly sad, spiky guitar arrangement, It’s Cold and I’m Cold sees her putting him on a plane to Cali. And then she wants to follow him. “You took my hand. Goddamn!” More curse than exclamation. In Hungry As You Were, she’s back in Somerville, he’s way across the country in Potrero Hill – maybe. “Ever since the war began I’ve been living as comfortably as I can…still haven’t gone south to get my hands dirty,” campaigning for Kerry maybe? The cd closes with Steps: “Do you see Coney island in winter we do not speak.” But he sees her on the train, calls her name and she moves away. “Pick up those pieces of your heart, throw away what you don’t need anymore, plant those seeds in a big big garden…these weekends feel like The End.” What’s nicest about this cd is its refreshing individuality. Macdonald gets umpteen opportunities to lapse into cliche and misses every one. This is a really good quiet rainy day ipod album, for times like when you want to go out to the deli but it’s too wet and nasty and you’re too depressed to move much anyway. A good companion piece to Robin O’Brien’s more wrenchingly sad Eye and Storm. Maia Macdonald plays Sidewalk on June 12 at 10 PM.

May 7, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Robin O’Brien – Eye and Storm

“It’s nice when people say a song of mine makes them cry, but I’d much rather it make them vomit their feelings,” Robin O’Brien once told Interview Magazine. However much the chanteuse might want to induce such a visceral reaction, the most she’s going to evince from of anyone with this album, her second on Chicago label Luxotone Records, is tears – buckets of them. Both O’Brien’s lyrics and her musical sensibility are remarkably terse and crystallized, often imbued with a white-knuckle intensity, but it’s her voice that elevates her above most other singers out there. It’s a powerful, soaring vehicle, equally honed to gospel elation, fiery Siouxsie-esque accusatory tones and a soulful belt that vividly echoes Laura Nyro. This is a thematic cd, a requiem for something. Taken at face value, it could be a breakup album, but it’s obviously much more than that – there’s a subtext here, a longing in the face of loss, less the lament of a lover than of a dreamer.

 

The hypnotic, almost tribal opening track, Waiting for Daniel (One) sets the tone, the narrator sharing a Chelsea memory with considerable anguish:

 

Inside the room where all my music dies

Where all my tears can’t make it come alive

 

By contrast, the second song, Mobile, with its layers of vocals is pure joie de vivre, an update on Joni Mitchell’s Clouds-period style: “We got an energy and a will to last forever!” The fierce, accusatory Monday comes as close to having a modern commercial feel as there ever is here, producer George Reisch coloring it with characteristically tasteful, warmly sparse electric guitar. O’Brien most closely evokes Laura Nyro on the blue-eyed soul standout Body Run Down, then her anxious anticipation turning to the horror of abandonment on the hypnotic, ragaesque When You’re Talking.

 

Looking for Daniel (Two) picks up the pace, feeling like a great lost track from the Velvets’ third album. The next track, L.O.V.E. Love is the album’s anguished centerpiece, the narrator realizing she’s reached a dead end, meticulously arranged layers of vocals swirling around: “This part is over/Party’s over.” From there, it’s a return to the cd’s earlier, hypnotic feel, and then Maysong, a showcase for O’Brien to air out her voice, backed only by acoustic guitar. Accented with a stark string arrangement, Walking Through You aches for a hope that will never be realized; then, on 10th Avenue, O’Brien shows off her powerful gospel pipes for all they’re worth. From there, the lights darken quickly, from the angst-driven lost-love ballad So Good, the jazzy Joni-isms of If You and the rivetingly resigned, Linda Thompson-inflected Britfolk feel of the cd’s concluding cut, I Can’t Make You. It would not be an overstatement to rank Eye and Storm on the same level as Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or with a lament by Mary Lee’s Corvette or Neko Case. Anyone with the strength – or the need – for the purity and intensity O’Brien offers on this album will find layers and layers of it here.

April 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment