Saturday, June 4, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1563: Loreena McKennitt

This next album features a harpist. Fun fact – when I was a kid I wanted to learn how to play the lyre. My mom searched all around for someone who taught the lyre, but all she could find was someone who taught the harp. Being a headstrong teen, I rejected this very reasonable compromise. Never did learn to play the lyre either…

Disc 1563 is…. The Visit

Artist: Loreena McKennitt

Year of Release: 1991

What’s up with the Cover? Who is this woman knock knocking on my chamber door?  Why does she seek to gain entry at this unearthly hour? Is she pursued by vampires, or is she just trying to escape the humidity that is playing hell with her hair?

How I Came To Know It: I saw a video (I think it was “All Souls Night”) on a music channel back when those were a thing. I think it might have been Country Music Television. I liked it a lot and went and found the album it was on. This was it.

How It Stacks Up: We have six Loreena McKennitt albums, and “The Visit” is the best of them all. Number one! This is the final review as well, so here’s a recap.

  1. The Visit: 5 stars (reviewed right here)
  2. Parallel Dreams: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 141)
  3. The Mask and Mirror: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 262)
  4. Elemental: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 143)
  5. The Book of Secrets: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 552)
  6. An Ancient Muse: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 282)

Ratings: 5 stars

It has been almost nine years since the CD Odyssey last landed on a Loreena McKennitt album, but there is no question we’ve saved the best for last. “The Visit” is a record I have heard hundreds of times but every time I put it on it still makes my spirit soar.

Since it has been a long time since I wrote about McKennitt, a refresher is in order. She is Celtic folk music, emerging from between the shadows to briefly bubble up into the mainstream consciousness when Celtic folk was a fad back in the early nineties. While there was a lot of junk that came out of that Celtic Renaissance (Riverdance comes to mind) there was also a lot of great music. “The Visit” is as good as it gets.

McKennitt plays both keyboards and harp on the record, and if you’re wondering what keyboards are doing on traditional Celtic folk music, you’d be right – this isn’t purely folk. McKennitt blends in a number of influences, but she does it so artfully you won’t mind.

In any case, it is the harp and her vocals that are the stars of the show. We don’t get many opportunities to hear the harp in modern music, and it is often relegated to a lonely corner at the back of a wedding dinner. “The Visit” brings it front and center. There is none of the fustiness you might expect from such a ‘chamber’ instrument. McKennitt’s harp trills through the album, burbling across songs across the top of the melody like some kind of water spirit.

McKennitt’s vocals have an equally magic quality. High and operatic, but with a rustic delivery that lends itself to storytelling. Modern artists like Marissa Nadler owe much to pioneers like McKennitt, who blended these traditions so artfully.

All the other players on the record are amazing as well, notably the fiddle work from George Marsh, but it is the way they are arranged together that matters most; always creating a swell that propels the story of each song forward.

As for the songs, they are exceptional. A mix of McKennitt’s own compositions, traditional folk tunes and sometimes a mix of English Literature masterpieces set to McKennitt’s music. The best of these is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” Tennyson was always a master of meter and flow and set to McKennitt’s music it will make your heart cry with the great and tragic romance that unfolds. The experience takes almost 12 minutes and at no point will you tire of the journey.

“The Visit” is McKennitt’s third album, and sees her beginning to explore broader Celtic traditions, and bringing in sounds from across Europe and beyond. “Between the Shadows” has a Middle Eastern flare to it and “Tango to Evora” brings in South American traditions. The opening track, “All Souls Night” is a mix of Celtic tradition and New Age mystery. All of it threads together in a grand tapestry of sound, and style.

McKennitt can also play it straight. The traditional “Bonny Portmore” laments the loss of a great tree that is felled to build a ship. I saw McKennitt live on “The Visit” tour back in 1991, and when she played “Bonny Portmore” tears streamed down my cheeks with the Goddamn tragic beauty of it all. This did not leave me looking manly in the eyes of my date, but I regret nothing.  

To this day, that concert was one of the best I have ever attended and to this day, this album is one of the best in my collection.

Best tracks: All tracks, but in particular All Souls Night, Bonny Portmore, Between the Shadows, The Lady of Shalott, and The Old Ways

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