Monday, June 21, 2010

CD Odyssey Disc 141: Loreena McKennitt

Time to take another trip down to my folksy past. I am in a bit of a hard rock phase right now, so the Odyssey’s ability to transport me into genres I don’t play as often is welcome indeed.

In fact, a side effect of this whole experience is that I am finding myself simultaneously interested in all different musical genres.

Disc 141 is...Parallel Dreams
Artist: Loreena McKennitt

Year of Release: 1989

What’s Up With The Cover?: Folk music is great, but the covers can be painful. Here we have Loreena McKennitt, sans hair product, trying to look mystical on the edge of a lake. Pictures like this always look like they were taken by a family friend, rather than professionally done. In Loreena’s defence, this album was before she broke ‘big’ on the Canadian folk scene – so the style budget was probably pretty tight.

How I Came To Know It: I heard a song from the album that followed this one, (1991's "The Visit”) and when I bought that album I was an instant fan. “Parallel Dreams” was me doing what I do best – drilling into the collection. It was the second Loreena McKennitt album I would buy.

How It Stacks Up: I have six Loreena McKennitt albums. Of the six, I’d put this one probably second or third, but more likely second.

Rating: 4 stars.

Loreena McKennitt is a great example of how talent and hard work can equal success without compromise. For most of her career she marketed her own CDs, with no management company - selling the discs from her own house, and running her own mail order business, in addition to writing, performing, producing and arranging her own tours. There is even some great footage of her going to record stores in New York to lobby managers to display her discs more prominently, or to play them while people shopped.

When “Parallel Dreams”, came out in 1989, McKennitt was still toiling in relative obscurity (at least I had never heard of her). It is a shame, too – so often the album right before an artist hits it big is some of their best work, but is overshadowed by what comes after.

Before we go any further, at this point a warning is in order. “Parallel Dreams” is not for the faint of heart. It is a hard core folk album, with very few of the pop sensibilities like we saw with the Dixie Chicks. This album is Celtic folk, where the lead instrument is a harp.

If you can get past that, then you’ll be well rewarded. McKennitt has a high, haunting voice that has few equals. Her later work adds a lot of more modern, new age elements but “Parallel Dreams” captures her in a very raw way, and lets her singing and storytelling come to the fore. When listening to this album, you really feel like you’ve been transported back to ancient Ireland or Scotland.

Of the eight tracks, McKennitt writes the music for seven, and the lyrics for four of the six that aren’t instrumentals. The other lyrics and music are ‘traditional’ which on Celtic folk records is…er…traditional.

I particularly enjoy the “Huron ‘Beltane’ Fire Dance", which I believe is McKennitt merging Huron Indian chants with fiddles inspired by the Celtic holiday of Beltane (she tackles the more famous holiday of ‘Samain’ on the album’s opening track, “Samain Night”). The “Fire Dance” has a rolling quality that makes you feel like you are dancing around a bonfire, even when you are actually in your car, stuck in traffic.

Bar none, however, the best song is the traditional, “Annachie Gordon”, a song about a young woman who wants to marry her true love, but is instead betrothed by her father to another man, who has (as Monty Python so aptly puts it) ‘great tracts of land.’

This song is a tragic tale, told in a time when people legitimately died of a broken heart. Of course, people still die of it, but modern medicine likes to call it something else these days to make us all feel a little bit more in control of our feelings. I have played “Annachie Gordon” easily one hundred times – and in the excitement of my youth, I’ve inflicted its full 8:22 on any number of victims over the years. It chokes me up every time.

While ‘Annachie Gordon’ is a five star folk song, there is one track on this album that annoys the hell out of me – that being “Dicken’s Dublin (The Palace)”. It is not enough that this song references one of my least favourite Victorian authors (as in – please sir, can I have some less?). No, added to this is some young English boy babbling on about life being tough in the streets of the city. If I want to hear about the down and out I prefer the master - Shane McGowan. Dickensian-inspired eight year olds need not apply.

Despite the abomination of “Dicken’s Dublin” this album is solid work, and has a couple of the better folk songs I’ve ever heard. It isn't the first Loreena McKennitt album I'd recommend, but it is probably the second.

Best tracks: Samain Night, Huron ‘Beltane’ Fire Dance, Annachie Gordon, Standing Stones.

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