Monday, August 31, 2009

Loreena McKennitt - The Book of Secrets


The Book of Secrets is another excellent album from Loreena McKennitt. It doesn't really cover any new ground or anything, but it's still extremely well done. My favorite songs here are thewordless track "Prologue," which reminded me of the Renaissance track with the same title and the laid back "The Mummer's Dance", which would get a remix later on (because if there's one thing Loreena McKennitt songs desperately need, it's oom-tiss drum noises).
If The Book of Secrets has a real fault, it's that it hews too closely to the formula of The Visit, right down to the unnecessarily long track with little musical development based on a previously existing poem (here it's "The Highwayman"). Fortunately, the two 7 minute+ tracks that close out the album are much more musically interesting. Also, Metallica's Master of Puppets followed the formula of Ride the Lightning almost song-for-song, yet I somehow don't hear too many people complaining about that.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Taking a break

I've been a little wound up with work, so I've decided to take a week's break from reviews. Note that should I ever decide to stop updating this blog, I will make it absolutely clear that I intend to do so and won't leave you hanging (I'm still pissed about Capn Marvel going AWOL three years ago).

Friday, August 21, 2009

Loreena McKennitt - The Mask and Mirror


One of the first things you hear when you put this on is an electric guitar. Thankfully, Loreena was smart enough not to rely on it outside of the album's opening song, and she uses it in a way consistent with her previous output (as opposed to Enya, whose use of a guitar solo in a song on "...And Winter Came" is one of the most out-of-place moments I've ever heard in music).
The Mask and Mirror is a very consistent record. The songs are long without being excessive; outside of the final three and a half minute track, the shortest tracks are just under six minutes long. There's also some unusual instrumentation that doesn't even come from non-European countries, such as the bouzouki, (Greece) balalaika (Russia) and hurdy-gurdy (Western Europe). Some sections are more subdued than others, but they never feel underproduced like the similar sections on Parallel Dreams, being more reminiscent of the wide-open but full-sounding production on To Drive the Cold Winter Away. There isn't a bad moment here. It's the best Loreena McKennitt release, if just by a hair.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Loreena McKennitt - The Visit


Okay, at this point we've reached the albums that sound like what Loreena McKennitt is famous for. The production is intricate without sounding overdone, the instrumentation is always interesting, and Loreena is in fine voice (but that goes without saying) and makes some interesting choices (both my mom and Allmusic claim that her performance on "Greensleeves" is a Tom Waits homage, while All Soul's Night has some Asian influence). There are also two excellent instrumentals, and even the synthesizers sound good!
The version of "The Lady of Shalott" is one of McKennit's most famous songs, but I have to say that it's one major reason that I'm not giving The Visit a 10. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but in my opinion, there's not nearly enough musical variation to fill out eleven and a half minutes. I understand that the poem was already shortened in this format, but the musical backing is just too repetitive for my tastes. However, the fact that such a minor quibble is my biggest complaint with this album means that it's still great.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Loreena McKennitt- Parallel Dreams


This is pretty much a textbook example of a transitional album. The sound is considerably fuller than the first two albums, but it's still closer to what came before that what came after it. However, the fact that it's halfway in between those two styles makes some of the tracks seem unfinished at times (a problem that was never in evidence on the previous records).
There's also some synthesizer, which feels awfully dated when it comes up (this was recorded in 1989, after all), although it's thankfully not used to as much excess as some other popular Celtic music of the time. *coughClannadcough* Also, some of the songs just don't work well; "Annachie Gordon" goes on for far too long, and "Dickens' Dublin" would have been a lot better without the voiceover from a little girl that makes it sound like Loreena was trying to get airplay on numbers stations. There are some better efforts, though; I especially enjoyed"Huron 'Beltane' Fire Dance," which bridges Gaelic and First Nations musical traditions quite nicely.
In short, Parallel dreams isn't a terrible album or anything, but it's awfully uneven; Loreena McKennitt was experimenting, but she wasn't entirely successful. Such is the nature of the beast.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Loreena McKennitt - To Drive the Cold Winter Away


Most Christmas music makes me want to go back in time and strangle Jesus in the manger. Most of the seasonal music that doesn't make me feel that way is in a more traditional style, like that found here. To Drive the Cold Winter Away is much in the same vein as Elemental. The album was recorded in a church, a monastery and a great hall, and the overall ambience is similar to that on McKennitt's first album; there's lots of space in the mix due to the sparse instrumentation and unusual recording locations, but it works very well, giving the album tons of atmosphere.
My favorite song here is "The King," but that's because I know that it's about an old English ritual that involved a dead wren that was paraded around as a king for some reason, which isn't really spelled out in the lyrics. The album's biggest faults are that a few tracks go on for more than a little too long and that, like its predecessor, it's more than a little samey. Still, it's head and shoulders above most Christmas music.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Loreena McKennitt - Elemental


Loreena McKennitt's first album is considerably sparer than her later efforts (not surprising when one considers that it was recorded in a barn). It's one of her most organic-sounding albums; there's not a whole lot here that can be considred "new age". As can be expected from a folk singer's first album, there isn't one song here that's truly original, as 7 of the songs are traditional and the other two are adaptations of poems by Yeats and Blake. Loreena's harp is the main instrument here, with a few bells and some guitar here and there. As on all of her material, Loreena's voice is wonderful, perfectly suited for Celtic material; I actually didn't realize that she was Canadian for several years.
The only real misfire here is the final track, "Lullaby". It starts out well enough, with some great wordless vocalizing from Loreena, but then it segues into a horribly pretentious reading of Blake by some guy that wouldn't have sounded too out of place on The Transformed Man. (Yes, I gave that album a 10, but I'm glad it wasn't influential or anything!) Still, at least it's an entertaining kind of badness. The rest of the album is a little samey at times, but still really well done and a fine debut.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Loreena McKennitt - Intro

A lot of people refer to the type of music typically played on classic rock radio stations as stuff that their dads listened to. I didn't get that experience, as my dad was 42 when I was born and my mom says he slept through the 70s. (Case in point: I played Stairway to Heaven for him once, and when he later heard the song in a different context, he said "Hey, there's that song Pugs likes!") The only real musical legacy my dad passed on to me was the folk-rock band Steeleye Span.
However, my mom was different. She would constantly play Loreena McKennitt and Enya tapes while she was driving me and my sister to and from places, and I developed a taste for them as a result (at least, they beat the hell out of stuff like Yanni and have more personality than corporate creations like Celtic Woman.)
Basically, the only reason I feel comfortable admitting this is that I haven't acquired a reputation to ruin.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Bands I'm not doing

There are quite a few bands that I enjoy which I won't be reviewing any time soon. Here are some of them:

ZZ Top: They stupidly remixed their first few albums so they would sound more like Eliminator; several of those albums have still not been released on CD in their original form. I really don't want to review butchered versions of these albums, so I'm going to wait until the original versions are rereleased.

Frank Zappa: His discography is WAY too long and has lots of dross in it. It's a shame because he's done some great stuff.

Jethro Tull: Even the 70's albums weren't all great (I disliked War Child and Too old to Rock 'n' Roll), and I fear to listen to their later stuff. A Passion Play is pretty underrated, though (except the godawful story about the hare that opens side 2)

Yes: Another really huge discography, but I really don't want to have to listen to Union. It seems like an enormous trainwreck, and not in an interesting way.

Jazz artists: Their discographies are huge, and I find the genre difficult to review. I might do some of the major fusion groups like Return to Forever, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra if I can fill out their discographies, though.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Chris Squire - Fish out of Water


Bassist Chris Squire has been the only constant member of Yes, and unlike most of the other prominent members (Rabin, Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford, Howe), he only has one solo album to his name. Fish Out of Water was released in 1975, and it relies a bit too much on orchestration for my tastes. Squire's singing is decent (he'd been singing backup on Yes albums before, of course) and the basslines are just as meaty as one might expect. Yet there's something lacking on the two 10 minute+ tracks- they don't flow quite as well as similar tracks on Yes albums and seem to go on as long as the sidelengths from Tales from Topographic Oceans.
However, the shorter tracks tend to be stronger; I enjoyed the McCartney-esque "You By My Side" and the jazz-funk "Lucky Seven" a lot. While Fish Out of Water turned out to be just a decent album, I kind of wish Squire had issued a few more solo efforts. I'd gladly trade a bunch of Wakeman's New Age albums for a second Squire album.

Monday, August 3, 2009

William Shatner - Exodus: An Oratorio


This release has "tax write-off" written all over it. Exodus: An Oratorio was released by the Jewish Music Group, whose logo- I shit you not- is just the BMG logo with an oversized "J" slapped onto it. Unsurprisingly, this is a classical piece about the Old Testament book of Exodus, which Shatner narrates. He's backed by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (which consists of a violinist and two guys who used to be in Lynyrd Skynyrd). This was recorded live in 2005, and the fact that this was done in one take hurts Shatner's performance, as there are parts where he sounds like an old man (Has Been was recorded the previous year and he sounds fine there)
The music is okay soundtrack stuff, I guess, although I especially enjoyed the parts with the xylophone and the plague with the frogs. The singing parts are just cheesy in a bad way; "serious" operatic vocals just shouldn't be done in English or Hebrew. Like Captain of the Starship, this is an oddity that only the die-hards should seek out (although this one doesn't wear out its welcome as much as that release).