Moira Smiley: May 2018 Album of the Month

Moira Smiley
Unzip the Horizon

I was toying between Don Gallardo's wonderful Still Here and Smiley's Unzip the Horizon for Album of the Month, but Ms. Smiley wins the boldness prize by a landslide. The horizon isn't the only thing she unzips in this innovative solo effort; you won't recognize her if you only know her work with Rising Appalachia, or as lead vocalist for Solas, or even VOCA. She has carved out new terrain for herself far from the constraints of accepted genres. Is this a Moira Goes Maura album? Sort of, though there is just one Maura O'Connell and Smiley has ventured onto turf where O'Connell has never trod.

Unzip the Horizon was inspired by Smiley's conversation with a Ukrainian woman who told her that singing puts her in touch with her ancestors and helps her deal with the future. Smiley enlists assistance from folks such Seamus Egan (Solas), Darrell Scott, trad singers Anna and Elizabeth, and Leah and Chloe Smith (Appalachia Rising), but the project itself borrows vibes from Americana, Celtic, indie, folk, show tunes, and lord knows what else, mixes them with borrowed sounds and hands us a bagful of gems of sparkling hues.

"Bellow" is where West Africa meets indie rock and studio loops. It's unusual, but only partly typical of what else is in store, although there is definitely a Carib-African feel to the pulsing "Refugee," which is bass, percussion, and vocals—also a plea for the plight of the displaced: Bring me shelter/I will not harm you. There is the cacophonic opening to "Mother of Invention that sets the mood for Smiley to make sense of it with a catch in her voice that turns noise into music. "Wiseman" is the most Celtic thing on the album, but it turns Celtic inside out and makes it into a spare arrangement that spotlights her vocals and those of Sam Lee. When Deana El Saffar's fiddle comes in, it's as mood enhancer, not a tempo-raiser. I was staggered by "One Step Dance," which is fragile as glass and as beautiful as a sunset. I unabashedly admit that "Dressed in Yellow" moved me to tears, with its moving confessional of forgiving a distant-sometimes-abusive father through the acknowledgment of the "many things to know" that hitherto were not. Anna and Elizabeth weigh in on segues that are half waulking song and half Greek chorus.

There are so many unexpected things on this record. "Dissatisfaction" spells out the word in a song summed by the lines: Dissatisfaction, you're a strange drug/You don't give me pleasure-you don't give me love. In an odd way it's a rejoinder to Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and a backdoor nod to The Rolling Stones'  "Satisfaction," though it doesn't sound a thing like either of them. Not that Smiley can't get soulful; she does on songs such as the harmony-rich "Sing About It," which she says was inspired by both Kate Bush and Sweet Honey in the Rock. She's soulful also on "Rotary Phone," which opens to banjo notes and then swirls into something that's part jazz and part soul. Jazz also gets a workout in the dark-yet-hopeful "Our Time." And, of course, she also unzips traditional music in her unique arrangements of "Worried Now" and "Leather Britches." This is simply an astonishing piece of work on every level. Shall I add that the Vermont-born Smiley has traveled far from home?

Rob Weir

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