Review Summary: Back In Mary Black2 of 2 thought this review was well written
The first thing I noticed while listening to ‘Stories from the Steeples’, Mary Black’s gorgeous new album, is just how country/bluegrass it sounds. Or maybe it is how Irish country/bluegrass music sounds. Not just in the music itself but in the lyrical construction of some of the songs and how they tell stories. The album starts off with one such track ‘Marguerite and the Gambler’, which reminded me lyrically of Tanya Tucker’s ‘Two Sparrows in a Hurricane’ and Ray and Willies ‘Seven Spanish Angels’. Country and I suppose Irish music has always been a very story-telling tradition in the vein of the old medieval troubadours, songs of lost love and young love and wars of the old west or old Ireland/Europe as might be the case with Black. I don’t know why this connection of sound surprised me but I am certain I could take a couple of the Black songs to my local country music night and get them played and do the two-step and nobody would notice it wasn’t “country”. One such song is the breezy ‘Walking with My Love’, a duet with Finbar Furey of Irish folk group The Fureys. It makes one feel like you are driving through Napa wine country or long stretches of plains highway in Kansas.
Another element that struck me is that Black never veers into that Celtic music cliché of ethereal singing trademarked by the likes of Enya, though she has veered into the same realm of esteem and sales as her, especially in Ireland where she is a superstar on par with U2 or The Corrs. Often times for me, especially with Enya, ethereal Celtic music can start to sound like a merry-go-round and getting old if not annoying. But Black sings straight and sings beautifully coming off as more folk balladeer or as I said a country singer. Those who have followed Black’s career from the beginning know her voice has undergone changes, it has become darker and huskier but no less pure or powerful and frankly that is all the better because her voice has matured with her song choices and song-writing. In fact Black’s voice has been considered so pure, that at times it has been used as audiophile benchmark for comparing the sound quality of different high fidelity systems.
Taken as a whole ‘Stories from the Steeples’ is light on the palette. That can be dangerous to ears like mine but I never found them getting sleepy. Every song was where it should be and as it should be. I played it while cooking, I played it again while working on my blog, I played it while just relaxing and reading and it just fills the room with a calm yet joyous vibe even when she is singing about war as on, ‘All The Fine Young Men’; a great addition to the pantheon of anti-war protest songs.
The song choices are certainly the keystone that keeps the bridge from music to ear in place. She is known for her commitment to mainly picking songs by Irish Songwriters, and these writers highlight the long that tradition linking Irish music to US traditional bluegrass, folk, and country songs. For songs like ‘Mountains to the Sea’ would fit right alongside the environmental songs of Joni Mitchell, or John Denver, or Pete Seeger. And ‘Faith in Fate’ written by her son 21, at the time, seems meant to come from that voice of a long Irish life lived but I imagine would also fit right into the cannon of work by Emmylou Harris or Linda Ronstadt.
I suppose the crowning achievement here for me is that when the last song ends, you feel satisfied. The album is complete; there isn’t one track to many or one track to few. It isn’t slogged in ballads nor revved up on reverie the whole time. It took me no time to get to know it or to get my ears used to it. It is perfect for a dinner party, for a road trip, for yoga, for a romantic night at home for two in bed... And for the audiophile it sounds just DYNAMITE on good stereo. And lastly as I said above it is a gorgeous work. Just gorgeous.
Marguerite and the Gambler
Walking With My Love with Finbar Furey
All the Fine Young Men
Lighthouse Light with Janis Ian