Maura Kennedy Project with Poet B. D. Love a Masterpiece

Villanelle: The Songs of Maura Kennedy and D. B. Love
Varése Sarabande Records 302- 007-339-8
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Three things we've long known: Maura Kennedy has a gorgeous voice, she's fearless as a performer, and she doesn't do little-girl vocals. That doesn't mean she doesn't have a softer side, though, and Villanelle highlights this–as well as her penchant for risk, her versatility, and her willingness to air out her lungs when the song requires it. About those risks, Kennedy took up the ultimate challenge. In a meeting with California-based poet B. D. Love, the two cooked up an audacious scheme: he would compose original poetry and she would write appropriate melodies–no word changes, no choruses, no repetition, no clichés. The result: An absolutely stunning album that alters moods, tempos, and styles more often than Cher changes costumes. You know from the get-go you're in for a treat. The album's title and opening track references a demanding style of 19-line poetry consisting of five tercets (three line that create a complete poem) followed by a quatrain. Try writing a melody for that! Now try to make it sound as gorgeous as what Kennedy composed. It's hard to describe, but it's simultaneously complicated, fragile, beautiful, and mystically evocative of the open spaces of the West. It, and songs such as the folk rocker "Bicycles with Broken Spokes," the old-time-laced "Mockingbird," and the Tex-Mex weepy "Borrowed Dress" are evocative of classic projects from Nanci Griffith and Tish Hinojosa.

Kennedy is also known, of course, for her work with her husband, Pete, which uses harder-edged material to create counter-balance when things get too smooth. On this album, Maura recreates that effect by donning different personae and musically transporting us to alternative musical landscapes. There is, for instance, the bluesy "She Worked Her Magic onMe," a song in the Bayou spirit of "Black Magic Woman;" the torchy "I'll Be Alone Tonight," which would be at home at an after-midnight Texas honky-tonk; and several songs that mash country with hints of sad East Coast girl-group material from the early 1960s, including "Breathe Deeply Love" and "Darling Cutter." That effect on the last song is especially a nice bit of legerdemain, given that Cutter is a young man who is the damaged product of abusive parents who escapes into a world of self-inflicted wounds and Internet porn. If that's not enough mood changes for you, there's also "Fireflies," a Kennedy original and the only lyrics Love did not pen. Its echoic vocals and faintly medieval melody are reminiscent of some of Jacqui McShee's post-Pentangle offerings. For heaven's sake, there's even a Christmas song on this album! If you know anything about B.D. Love, it goes without saying that his lines are metrical and imaginative. Best of all, they are like the villanelle–complex in style but, if done right, so steadfast in their clarity that we notice only the way they stir.

Rob Weir


Brian McNeill Looks at Scottish Music--In One Place: Falkirk

The Falkirk Music Pot
Greentrax 383D
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What is Scottish music? Once one accepts the reality that what is glibly labeled "Celtic music" is more useful for marketers than ethnomusicologists, the question becomes a much harder one to answer. Does one root around deeply in the Scottish past to find antecedents for each rhythm, melody, and beat? That was the avenue taken by Dick Gaughan back in 1991, when he spearheaded the Clan Alba project. His was a brilliant undertaking that, nonetheless, managed to anger self-styled purists. In a new undertaking, Brian McNeill, who takes an ethnomusicological backseat to no one, tacks a different direction. Instead of seeking to unearth Scotland's musical past, he presumes that region and culture conspire to create distinct sounds. His is a microcosmic look at Scottish music in one place–his native Falkirk–and he simply avoids definitional battles by presenting music of, about, and played in Falkirk. Strictly speaking, just two of the 22 tracks on this double CD are traditional and McNeill is perfectly willing to accept that visiting students from Malawi's Bandwe Secondary School, with whom Falkirk schools have an exchange program, fertilize Falkirk's music just as richly as a native son such as himself.

McNeill calls this project a "cooking pot," an apt description for the musical porridge stirred by McNeill, local students, and homegrown talent in 2014, when Falkirk won a grant and designation as an official Creative Place. McNeill is on the CD with a few of his classics: "The Lads O' the Fair,' "The Boys that Broke the Ground," "The Best of the Barley," and "The Travelling Nation's Pride." The last selection is actually sung by Sylvia Barnes (ex- of Kentigern) and a reminder that McNeill is as much in his producer, teacher, musical director roles as that of headline performer. Many listeners will not have previously heard Amy Low, Emma Buchan, Ellie Williams, Andy McKean, Willy Thomson, or Andrew Howie. That's because the first two are youthful pipers, Williams a precocious 17-year-old singer/songwriter, and the last three regional folk club staples. And you would have had to be in Falkirk on the right night to hear the Falkirk Schools Ensemble, the Bo'ness and Carriden (brass) Band, or competition pieces from various local songwriters. McNeill gives the final word to pupils from the Bandwe Girls Secondary School as they sing "Phla Phala Phala." How appropriate. The word means "porridge." Go to the head of the class if you guessed that in Malawi it's cooked in a big iron pot.
Rob Weir


Christina Baker Kline Early Book Lacks Orphan Train Likability

Christina Kline Baker
William Morrow, 288 pages, 978006078901
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Christina Baker Kline's 2013 novel Orphan Train was a runaway hit. As is often the case, this sparked interest in earlier novels and rumors of impending movie options on those works. I liked Orphan Train, so I decided to check out an earlier work, Bird in Hand. After having done so, I must conclude that Kline is a writer only now hitting her stride. Bird in Hand reads like something made for the Lifetime channel. It is perhaps good as a non-challenging beach read, but it's neither original nor substantive.

Kline employs a few of the oldest conventions in literature: a love triangle, the allure of dangerous liaisons, and the pull between stability and sexiness. At heart it is a book about Alison and Claire, two Southern girls/best friends who live life in the New York City fast lane after college. Their husbands–whom Claire and Alison met in college–become fast friends and the two couples build lives that revolve around loft parties, dining out, and gallery openings. Their close friendship slowly cools, though, when Alison and Charlie have two kids and move to the suburbs. Claire and Ben stay in New York, where he is an ambitious architect and she a writer. Alison also works in the publishing industry, though for a parenting magazine, whereas Claire's novel–based perhaps too closely on her and Alison's lives—becomes an overnight sensation. To kick off a press junket, Claire holds a large party in the city, which Alison reluctantly attends–reluctantly because she and Claire have drifted apart and Alison feels woefully inferior. In a telling moment, Alison searches for an outfit without baby vomit on it, a startling contrast to Claire's sultry ensemble.

On her drive back home to New Jersey, Alison loses her bearings and is involved in a horrible auto accident in which a small boy is killed. It's not her fault, but add grief and guilt to Alison's litany of inadequacies. As it transpires, the accident is the catalyst for serious reexamination on three sides. Charlie is bored with his soulless job, the suburbs, responsibility, and Alison. She, in turn, is feeling unappreciated and unloved. She's right. Charlie and Claire have secretly had the hots for each other since college and each sees the other as a thrilling alternative to their rock steady (read "boring") spouses. The rest of the novel follows a path we anticipate will come to no good end.

Both the scenario and the writing are more melodramatic than tragic–like a soap opera that's gone on too long. The novel also suffers in that of its four central characters, only its least developed, Ben, is in any way likable and he only because he's so clueless we feel sorry for him for much of the book. Claire is still another literary convention: a femme fatale. She's a Southern princess: spoiled, selfish, amoral, and sexy. The last quality explains why Charlie is attracted to her, but there is little reason why Claire would reciprocate. Charlie is handsome, but he's also an empty suit whose ability to manipulate others barely masks his slacker demeanor, his lack of compassion, and his overall flat affect. We can, however, see why he'd be bored with Alison. At the risk of making a gendered remark, she's one of my least favorite literary types: a Millennial mom written as though her generation invented parenting. Only toward the end does she experience more feistiness than a cleaning cloth. If the message of this novel is that life is complicated, thanks for stating the obvious. If, however, we are supposed to feel pity, sympathy, or compassion for any of them, Bird In Hand left those options in the proverbial bush. Orphan Train succeeds because Baker populated it with sympathetic characters; those in Bird in Hand are merely pathetic,
Rob Weir