Wednesday, August 8, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 426: Figgy Duff

After many fits and starts, I finally made it back to the gym today, and getting in a workout has helped make a chaotic and busy world seem a little bit slower and more sensible.  It is amazing that the secret to life is really very little more than ‘eat right and exercise.’  You’d think there’d be more to it.

Disc 426 is…Downstream
Artist: Figgy Duff

Year of Release: 1993

What’s up with the Cover?  A close up of singer Figgy Duff singer Pamela Morgan looking kind of like an east coast folk version of actress Leah Thompson.  A google image search revealed this wistful half-smile is Morgan’s preferred pose when cameras are at hand.  This cover suits me well – nothing fancy, but well executed, with a title I can read.  As I noted in the teaser, everything doesn’t have to be complicated.

How I Came To Know It: I bought this album because I went to buy their album with the song “Woman of Labrador” on it (“Weather Out the Storm” reviewed way back at Disc 67).   That album wasn’t in, but this one was so I settled for it and hoped for the best while I waited them to restock the album I really wanted.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have two Figgy Duff albums.  This one is by far the inferior record of the two.

Rating: 2 stars

On my way to and from the gym today I listened to Billy Bragg, a little too loud, and with the top down.  I guess I felt I had earned a break after two full days to and from work with Figgy Duff’s “Downstream.”

In case you're slow on the uptake, this is a sign that I’m not going to have a lot of good things to say about this album, but I’m going to do my best to mute my scorn because despite this record’s many faults, Figgy Duff are earnest in their efforts, and because over their full career they did a lot of good for Newfoundland folk music, for which I’m very thankful.

With this in mind, let’s start with the best track on the record, “Twilight.”  This song is a stark piece of beauty.  From the lonely playing of the lone piano that starts it off to the frail sound of Pamela Morgan’s voice piercing the quickly closing darkness of the song’s theme it delivers an emotional wallop.  This is a song about intolerance that ends in both death and societal disintegration.  Morgan’s vocal chops make it strangely beautiful just ensures you pay close attention despite the rough ride.  It is a song about isolation, and those who get isolated without just cause, and at times it can be a hard listen – hey, it’s called “Twilight” not “Dawn,” people. 

Twilight” is a fine work of art that has something important to say about human nature, love and at only 3:24 in running time it ends well before you get tired of it.  So, you know, not the movies.

And now, I must turn to some less kind observations.

First, I found the album’s production painfully fuzzy.  I think an effort was made to give the whole album a dreamy quality, with lots of ambient sound.  Instead it comes off indistinct and uninspired.  The musical arrangements are vaguely Celtic, but a lot of the traditional instruments like fiddle show up so far back in the mix you have to strain to hear them at all.

It felt like I was stuck at some boring summer garden party being forced to sip virgin mint juleps and endure easy listening AM radio while the neighbours next door have a kegger in full swing, with everyone dancing.  You strain to hear more of what’s going on over the fence but the damn stereo at your own event – while painfully low – is still too damned loud to let you hear the good stuff right nearby.

Morgan’s voice is as pretty as ever, but the production decisions make it sound very thin in places, and the melodies in the song compositions – with a few exceptions – don’t do her the justice she deserves.  Most of the songs are a maddening mismatch of song construction and singer.

Also, for the most part the writing is overly saccharine.  The anti-war song “Freedom” compared very poorly to classics like Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” or even more modern folk tracks like Capercaillie’s “Black Fields.”  It may seem cruel to compare a relatively small Canadian act like Figgy Duff to folk greats like Dylan or Capercaillie, but the reality is that is the competition that happens every day for space on my CD carousel or MP3 player – and those artists consistently win for good reason.

As I pointed out earlier, Figgy Duff are earnest on this record, and I give them full marks for this.  They clearly work hard to compose songs that are not derivative, which is more than you can say for a lot of acts these days.  That said, topics like bullying (“Allanadh”) or autism (“Song for Paul”) are a delicate balance, and can sound either trite or insincere if they’re mishandled.  I think “Downstream” successfully delivers on sincerity in both cases, but can’t seem to avoid the trite.  Important topics, yes, but they come off feeling like that old Nestle Quik commercial where the Mom comforts the boy with hot chocolate after a tough day at the playground.

There are many lyrical missteps, but here are a couple of lines from “Crown of Thorns” that is particularly painful:

“Well I perceive that you don’t like me much
You don’t want me around
If there’s a thorn in your side
It’s from my crown – crown of thorns.

“Well I perceive that you’re uncomfortable
My presence kind of makes you squirm
It’s cuz I’m not afraid to tell it like it is
And open up a can – can of worms.”

So hard to quickly paint all the ways these lyrics need help.  The  tired expressions (‘can of worms’, ‘crown of thorns’), the sentence structure (no poem should have ‘kind of’ in it just to serve the meter of the line) or the use of an overwrought word like ‘perceive’ when the writer really means ‘see.’  It is too bad, because musically “Crown of Thorns” is one of the better songs on the record, but the lyrics make it really hard to listen to.

When I reviewed “Weather out the Storm” I pointed out that when they stick to traditional Celtic arrangements, Figgy Duff are excellent, but when they try a more modern world music/new age sound they fall flat.  That is true for “Downstream” as well, except that they’ve taken two more steps in the wrong direction on this record.  It makes me want to hear their earlier albums, which I expect would be much more to my liking.

Best tracks:  Twilight

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