Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Fairly Indistinct Loreena McKennitt Album Comes From An Ancient Muse

The Good: Excellent voice, Good instrumentals, Some musical diversity
The Bad: Disappointing range, Short, Nothing distinct, Vocals are incomprehensible
The Basics: Loreena McKennitt uses a number of musical instruments including her melodious voice to create music ranging from classical Middle Eastern to something bordering on pop that says nothing.

For the last few months as I've reviewed a ton of c.d.s and exposed myself to all sorts of music, I've begun to run into artists, performers and albums that quite simply underwhelm me. Even great artists like Elton John with his Songs From The West Coast and Melissa Etheridge with Your Little Secret have produced albums that are uninspiring, that don't impress the listener with any one single or with an overall sense of anything. I've been branding such albums as "indistinct" and I believe that might well be the best word for the experience. So, for example, after listening to Loreena McKennitt's blase Christmas album To Drive The Cold Winter Away, I was left with almost no impression. Picking up McKennitt's latest outing, An Ancient Muse, I find myself in something of the same predicament.

With nine tracks, clocking in at a little over fifty-four minutes, An Ancient Muse is a remarkably average musical experience. For those not familiar with Loreena McKennitt's works, she is a classically trained musical artist and performer who is creating Celtic music that has a traditional sound blended with contemporary instruments. As a result, An Ancient Muse contains instrumental tracks like "Kecharitomene," which combines a strong percussion track with a cello, oud, synthesizer and a Celtic bouzouki (I swear, I'm not making these instruments up!). The resulting sound on the instrumental pieces is an intriguing combination of Celtic, Middle Eastern and Chinese sounds. Had I not read the instrument listing, I might have just assumed that "Kecharitomene" was simply employing a zither.

The thing about An Ancient Muse is that I have to give Loreena McKennitt points for her voice and for the instrumentals. This album has a wide array of instruments that are employed, especially in the strings. The liner notes for the album detail McKennitt's travels around Turkey, Greece, China, Cuba and back to Wiltshire studios and it's clear that her journey influenced her music profoundly. She utilizes atypical instruments to create a new classical music that sounds good. "Sacred Shabat," an instrumental written by McKennitt sounds like it could be ancient and is sounds distinctly Middle Eastern. Written in her travels through Turkey and Greece, she employs the kanoun, cello, keyboards, and lyra to make something that sounds both classical and ancient and fresh and new.

The limitation here, though, is that all of the songs with vocals are ponderous, slow and melodic in a vague, ethereal way. McKennitt's voice merges so harmonically with the stringed instruments that is is often difficult to understand just what she is singing. It's hard to get your message across when it can be barely understood. On An Ancient Muse, there's not a single song where the words are clear and centered before the music enough to make them easily comprehended.

This is not to say that Loreena McKennitt does not have a great voice, she does. McKennitt's voice ranges from alto to the lower ranges of soprano territory on An Ancient Muse. She harmonizes perfectly and has amazing pitch. She even seems to be able to articulate her poetry. Some of her songs, like "Beneath A Phrygian Sky" are especially long (fourteen stanzas that create a nine minute song) and she presents it flawlessly.

Except that it can't be understood. I'm on my seventh listen to the album and I can hear her voice on tracks like "Beneath A Phrygian Sky" but I can't understand a single line. Her voice is blended so much with the instrumentals that while it is easy to tell when she is singing and that she has a wonderful voice, it's not easy to tell what she is singing. This contributes to an overall sense of the album being more murky than it ought to be.

Unlike To Drive The Cold Winter Away, though, the songs are varied enough that the album does not blend together in one big presentation of auditory sludge. While the songs that have McKennitt singing are generally slow and ponderous, the instrumental tracks (only two on the album) have faster tempos. This breaks up the album well and prevent it from being a narcoleptic experience.

Because McKennitt is catering to a vocal audience, her emphasis is more on sound and presentation as opposed to actually saying something with her lyrics. The result is that reading her poetry in the liner notes (again, it's indecipherable when listening to on the album), I found myself disappointed. The lines and rhymes are especially simple. So, for example, on "Never-Ending Road (Amhran Duit)," McKennitt writes and sings a simple refrain of "Here is my heart, I give it to you / Take me with you across this land / These are my dreams, so simple so few /Dreams we hold in the palm of our hands." Combined with the slow, singsong vocals, these rhymes are insultingly dull and obvious. I mean, any artist can rhyme "where" with "there" and "here" with "fear." Largely, McKennitt's poems are atmospheric; creating a sense of place and time and merely painting a picture.

That would be enough if the listener could understand them when put to music. Instead, the obfuscation of the lyrics to the music is analogous to a viewing of paintings where the viewers are all required to wear sunglasses. What is the point of painting a picture, creating an image in bright colors, if all who experience it must have it muted?

The result, then, is something indistinct. It is a series of instrumentals that create a new classical sound with pop sensibilities, tracks that might cause the body to sway or groove, but whose deeper meanings are lost. The result is something less original than it is muddied and as someone who has enjoyed other albums by Loreena McKennitt, this is a profound disappointment.

At least it sounds good while disappointing with its musical variety and the quality of McKennitt's voice.

I enjoyed "Penelope's Song" most and found "Never-Ending Road (Amhran Duit)" to be the weakest link.

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


Check out all the albums this is better and worse than at my Music Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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