Friday, June 22, 2012

Opening Short, Sweet And Creatively, Loreena McKennitt's Elemental Is Good.

The Good: Good vocals, Creative sound, Decent instrumental accompaniment
The Bad: Disturbingly short
The Basics: A good, but short and arguably typical, Celtic album, Elemental starts out Loreena McKennitt's career well!

It's always interesting to me to see who succeeds and who flops after a first album. After all, some recording companies do not give a second chance to the investments they make who fail to perform. Conversely, smaller companies seem content to build an audience and create a career for an artist independent of the cold numbers of album sales. Loreena McKennitt seems to be one of the latter artists. Listening to her debut, Elemental, it is clear that McKennitt appeals to a very specific niche, always has, always will and Quinlan Road - the small recording company which released her first few albums - was content to nurture her career long enough for her to gain a following that was respectable and warranted the attention of the bigger recording companies.

The thing is, Elemental sounds creative and fresh and it is easy to see how anyone looking for something different out of their musical experience would enjoy the Celtic music sound McKennitt starts with, but it is a very specific niche she is catering to. While later albums and her breakout single "The Mummer's Dance" contain infusions of pop-rock flavor, Elemental is stark, simple and very much a traditional Celtic music sound. Ultimately, it is easy to recommend - even to fans of Loreena McKennitt's music - but it is problematic in its short duration and it replays less well than some of McKennitt's other albums. But her potential is evident and anyone who likes Classical, vocal or Celtic music is liable to enjoy Elemental.

With only nine songs occupying only 36:27 on compact disc, Elemental is an excellent example of Loreena McKennitt's quality as a composer, if not a well-rounded musical artist. McKennitt adapted traditional (public domain) Celtic songs as well as putting music to two poems ("The Stolen Child" by William Butler Yeats and "Lullaby" by William Blake). McKennitt composed all of the musical compositions and she sings primary vocals on all of the songs. She played harp and piano on various tracks and was involved in the production of Elemental, so this is very much the album she intended to create.

For those who might not have heard much in the Celtic-folk genre, Elemental sounds most like fringe-mainstream artist Enya. Her music relies on untraditional (or, I suppose, literally traditional) instruments like the harp, dulcimer and lutes to create slow, sad-sounding ballads. Elemental is unified in its tone, which is entirely slow, sad and melodic. The dominant instrument is the harp and the songs tend to be most frequently accompanied by chimes for percussion.

McKennitt mixes the bland Celtic harp sound up occasionally. On "Lullaby," she opens with the sounds of thunder to lead into more musing instrumentals and her eerie vocals which establish a melody.

Vocally, McKennitt has a beautiful soprano voice, which she makes tremble beautifully. She sings her songs melodically and slowly and on Elemental, there are very few lines she does not sing with perfect clarity. Unlike later albums, McKennitt seems to want all of her lines heard (later on, she mumbles or produces the instrumental accompaniment to overwhelm the lines). McKennitt is seldom alone on Elemental. Songs like "Stolen Child" have McKennitt accompanied with other female voices to create a chorus of passionate wailings. On "Lullaby," Douglas Campbell performs the poem and his stark, deep reading of Blake's lines is a huge departure from the rest of the album, but it works beautifully!

Lyrically, Elemental is essentially a series of traditional English poems and songs set to new harp, bell and piano music. While McKennitt mixes in thunder and bird sounds ("She Moved Through The Fair"), she is presenting mood poems which tend to paint a picture of the medieval world more than anything else. As a result, she sings little musical storysongs like "Dear thoughts are in my mind / And my soul soars enchanted / As I hear the sweet lark sing / In the clear air of the day. / For a tender beaming smile / To my hope has been granted / And tomorrow she shall hear / All my fond heart would say" ("The Lark In The Clear Air"). The songs tend to have singsong rhyme schemes, but given that most were written over two hundred years ago, McKennitt's source material arguably created some of the traditional rhymes.

And, ultimately, more than anything else, it is the short duration of Elemental that makes it an average album. Truth be told, it is unlike most pop-rock albums and while it is very much what one expects from a vocal or Celtic album, arguably those expectations come from Loreena McKennitt herself! Anyone who likes classical music with poetic vocals will likely enjoy Elemental.

The best song is "Stolen Child." I was not wild about "Come By The Hills."

For other Loreena McKennitt albums, be sure to visit my reviews of:
To Drive The Cold Winter Away
Parallel Dreams
A Midwinter Night’s Dream


For other music reviews, check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the music I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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