Monday, July 2, 2012

Another Indistinct McKennitt Album, The Visit Fails To Impress

The Good: Voice
The Bad: Music produces over the lyrics, Musically bland, Track to track indistinct, Short
The Basics: Producing over her vocals again so her lyrics are indecipherable, Loreena McKennitt once again fails to impress with The Visit.

As a fan of female singer-songwriters, it might seem quite natural that I would be a fan of Loreena McKennitt. However, I am not and The Visit is one of the albums that helps illustrate exactly to me - and others when I discuss it - why I am not. What songs are comprehensible (namely "Greensleeves") are poorly arranged and performed and the rest pretty much blends into a musical mash that is neither original nor compelling. More than most of McKennitt's albums, The Visit suffers upon replaying (particularly on a continuous loop) because the various songs sound pretty much alike.

This view is treated as something of a heresy among those who love McKennitt and her works, but it is how I come to her various albums. And having had The Visit on high rotation for the day (I've now listened to it a total of eight times, at least), it is a blur of repetitive instrumentations, decent but poorly mixed vocals and and overall slow, hypnotic and unmemorable feel. Unlike most of McKennitt's albums, The Visit is all slow, ponderous and almost universally incomprehensible from the vocals.

With only nine tracks, coming in at 43:09, The Visit is McKennitt's trademark blend of traditional songs arranged by her and her own original works, which tend to sound of the same era. The Visit is McKennitt's Celtic album and one that has traditional songs from the Celts in addition to adapting the poetry of others (Tennyson, Shakespeare, Henry VIII) and putting it to a Celtic instrumentation. Five of the songs are written by McKennitt and she provided original music for two of the others. The other two use their classic music and McKennitt simply performs them.

On The Visit, McKennitt is responsible for the lead vocals on the eight tracks that have vocals. As well, she is musically adept and performs on the keyboards, accordion, harp and bodhran on the album. As well, she does produce the album, so at the end of the day it is hard to suggest this is anything other than Loreena McKennitt's musical vision.

Unfortunately, it is boring. Without fail, the music fails to impress, though it is hard to deny that McKennitt has an amazing soprano voice. Her "la's" on "Tango To Evora" are perfect in pitch and have a hypnotic quality. Unfortunately, they fail to sell the song. A tango is supposed to be a musical expression (and dance) of sublimated sexuality, a raw display of passion, restraint and rejection. This tango is more lethargic and sleepy than passionate.

This is largely the problem with all of the songs on The Visit. The album begins with the narcoleptic "All Souls Night" and continues through McKennitt's somnambulic presentation of "Cymbeline." And in the middle, there are tracks like her take on "Greensleeves," which she attempts to do in the style of Tom Waits and completely fails to replicate or impersonate the gravitas of his gravely performance. Instead, the track just sounds like McKennitt is sleepsinging through that as well.

"Greensleeves" is one of the few songs that McKennitt's vocals can actually be understood on. Instead, most of her songs are plagued by production that sublimates or equalizes her vocals to the same volume as the keyboards, cellos and basses played on the album. It does make one wonder what the point of writing poetry like "Bonfires dot the rolling hillsides / Figures dance around and around / To drums that pulse out echoes of darkness / Moving to the pagan sound. / Somewhere in a hidden memory / Images float before my eyes / Of fragrant nights of straw and bonfires / And dancing till the next sunrise" ("All Souls Night") if one is just going to produce the instrumentals to drown out your own singing. So even when McKennitt has decent lyrics of her own on The Visit, they can hardly be understood by listening to the album.

And, frankly, not all of her lyrics are all that grand. Instead, she frequently uses predictable and tired rhymes in her poetry. For example, on "Courtyard Lullaby," she has singsong lyrics with her rhymes "And when the wind draws strong / Across the cypress trees / The nightbirds cease their songs / So gathers memories." While one does not expect all of her lines to be new and audacious, there is something tired about rhymes like "tree/see," "say/way," and "land/hand." This is not the greatest expression of McKennitt's poetry ever.

That said, it is hard to deny that she has some abilities as a musical storyteller. On "The Old Ways," for example, her poetics are full of decent imagery and she tells a musical storysong that is, at worst, picturesque. Indeed, it is very easy to imagine the setting when one reads her lines "As we cast our gaze on the tumbling sea / A vision came o'er me / Of thundering hooves and beating wings / In clouds above" ("The Old Ways").

And I write, quite purposefully "read" those lyrics. "The Old Ways" is a perfect example of how McKennitt produces her sopranic vocals to be sublimated below the instrumentals. On that song, especially, the instrumentals are quite rich with her voice competing against a harp, bodhran, keyboards, bass, uillean pipes, fiddle and electric and acoustic guitars. The song is an extreme, but standard for McKennitt, example of how production can ruin a song and McKennitt, as producer, ought to have known better than so tragically obscure her own lines.

On The Visit, all of the songs are slow and while many of them have a decent number of instruments, the fullness of sound is often overwhelming. And the tracks that do not at least fill the listener's ear up with music tend to be quiet and boring. This is not an exciting album and as a result, even lovers of Celtic music are bound to be disappointed by it and find after a rather short time that it ends up out of high rotation.

As for me, I bow out of even my usual best and worst tracks: this album is just indistinct, musical mush and listeners can do a lot better than what McKennitt gives them on this.

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


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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