Sunday, December 19, 2010

Indistinct McKennitt - To Drive The Cold Winter Away

The Good: Nice voice, Atypical "sound."
The Bad: Tracks are indistinct, Album is short, The lyrics are unimpressive
The Basics: Without any songs that genuinely stand out, To Drive The Cold Winter Away is a short Christmas album with unrecognizable songs that feels much longer than it is.

Some years ago, I was eager to learn about the acclaimed musical artist Kate Bush. I found her double album Aerial and found it to be pointless, uninspired and just awful. When I was evaluating that outing, I made a comparison between Bush and Loreena McKennitt, whose works I have generally enjoyed. I decided it was time to revisit some of McKennitt's works and the first one I picked up was To Drive The Cold Winter Away. Sadly for my opinion of the works of Loreena McKennitt, this is suffering as one of her least worthwhile works. On my fifth listen through the album, I realized not one of the songs had distinguished itself.

I have a real thing against albums where the result is essentially auditory sludge. I enjoy cohesive albums that create a body of work that puts me - or any listener - on a journey. While songs may flow from one to another with grace and a sense of the big picture of an album (I think track order can be incredibly important to a musical endeavor), I still want to feel like I have listened to something, especially after multiple listens. On To Drive The Cold Winter Away, I did not get that sense and I felt cheated. I can barely write, after seven listens now, what exactly I heard in To Drive The Cold Winter Away.

With ten tracks clocking in at 45:40 minutes, To Drive The Cold Winter Away is largely a collection of songs featuring Loreena McKennitt as performer, as opposed to artist. Seven of the tracks are traditional ballads (English, Irish and Scottish), two of the tracks are written by McKennitt and one has her music accompanying lyrics by Archibald Lampman. McKennitt is showcased as a vocal performer, rather than an artist who is creating her own material and sharing her vision with the world.

What may one expect of To Drive The Cold Winter Away? Let's start with voice. Presented here as a vocal artist, Loreena McKennitt is performing songs that sound like old ballads, like carols and hymns, though most of them are more ambiguous than Christian. McKennitt has a beautiful soprano voice that easily set the standard for the likes of the more current performers like Hayley Westenra. The problem for McKennitt here on this album is that her presentations are beautiful in pitch and melody, and the way she harmonizes with the harps and violins, but they vary very little.

So, with her opening track of "In Praise of Christmas," McKennitt easily establishes that she has a gorgeous soprano voice. She establishes that she can hold notes for a period of time that makes her vocals very fluid and luxurious in an auditory sense. But then comes "The Seasons" and she delivers essentially the same performance, then "The King" which is the same again and so on and so on. Diluted with two instrumental performances - "Banquet Hall" and "The Stockford Carol" both of which were written by McKennitt - the album ultimately comes across as an object lesson in how to present one very obvious style in one very consistent manner.

This brings us to the actual music. The instruments on To Drive The Cold Winter Away are harps, accordions, viols, tambourines, finger cymbals, and a lone tin whistle. The instrumentation is unvaried throughout the album. All of the songs are slow, sad sounding and . . . well, dull. For a woman who made the Celtic sound popular with "The Mummer's Dance," this album is a solidly orthodox, blase album that does not challenge the listener or any conventions.

That's not to say that an album must do that; when it is not, it has to provide a solid listening experience that showcases a range, lyrically, musically or vocally that captures something. Instead, this is a mostly narcoleptic album that is not musically or vocally impressive.

As for the lyrics, the way the recording is presented makes them rather difficult to decipher at times. The vocals were mostly recorded in cavernous churches, which captured just enough of an echo to throw the ethereal pitches McKennitt emits back at her. The result is an auditory experience where any number of lines of verse are lost to the acoustics. In short, the album makes it just clear enough to the listener that McKennitt is singing, but makes it hard to hear WHAT she is saying.

Some of the lines are decipherable, though no single song stands out for the lyrics. Most of them are traditional songs and they rely on imagery that would have been nice to hear (I ended up reading most of the lines in the liner notes just to decipher what she is singing). A number of the songs use very predictable rhymes, like gun/fun, dry/by and season/reason in "The Seasons."

As well, the latter half of the album presents a number of distinctly Christian songs with "Balulalow," "Let Us The Infant Greet," and "The Wexford Carol." While normally, I might comment on lines like "Let all that are to mirth inclines / Consider well and bear in mind / What our good God for us has done / In sending his beloved Son / For to redeem our souls from thrall / Christ is the savior of us all . . ." ("Let All That Are To Mirth Inclined"), it's easy to let it slide on McKennitt's album as most of the lines with strong Christian imagery are virtually obscured by the acoustics . . .

. . . And because, after seven listens and one read through the liner notes, this is ultimately presented with the intent to be a Christmas album. Damn you, Loreena McKennitt, duping me into listening to Christmas carols on repeat! :) Okay, it's hard to ultimately take this album seriously on a number of levels because everything is so unfamiliar and there is nothing superlative that instead of being impressed, shocked or anything else, the listener (in this case one who just wanted to hear some decent Celtic music) is simply disappointed.

Who might like this album? Well, if you want a traditional Christmas album without any songs you're likely to recognize and that is more likely to get you to fall asleep in your egg nog than celebrate the birth of anyone, To Drive The Cold Winter Away might just be for you. If you're looking for something to keep you awake while driving or entertain or enlighten you, this album is not it. There are better albums by McKennitt and in general.

The best track is the unpretentious instrumental "Banquet Hall," the low point was "Balulalow."

For other Christmas albums, please check out my reviews of:
Joy: A Holiday Celebration - Jewel
These Are Special Times – Celine Dion
A New Thought For Christmas – Melissa Etheridge


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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