Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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