Sunday, February 17, 2013

When Did McLachlan Sell Herself As Madonna . . . And Why?

The Good: Some excellent vocals, Some intriguing arrangements
The Bad: Some disturbing musical moments, Overall underwhelming presentation
The Basics: In a disappointing outing from one of my favorite artists, Sarah McLachlan alters some of her decent songs in tragic ways and presents some additional tracks we can live without.

Sarah McLachlan is an artist who has continually impressed me with how she writes and sings her poems. She is one of the talents on the whole women's pop-rock movement that has advanced feminist causes in a positive way consistently. As the founder of Lilith Fair, she created a phenomenon. I own - and frequently listen to - her albums Surfacing and Afterglow. So, I was enthusiastic when I sat down to listen to Sarah McLachlan's album Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff. For those who want the bottomline first, I won't be adding this to my permanent collection.

With thirteen tracks, Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff clocks in at 56 minutes and presents live versions of McLachlan favorites, songs not previously available easily and covers of other artist's works and standards. McLachlan puts her own twist on Gordon Lightfoot's "Song For A Winter's Night" and Joni Mitchell's "Blue." And while her version of "Gloomy Sunday" might please her fans, I'm still partial to Heather Nova's version (from South, reviewed here!). McLachlan's version is nothing extraordinary and I found her pitch to be troublesome on this track.

Coming into this disc, the only songs I knew were "Full of Grace" (from Surfacing), "I Will Remember You" (from the radio), and "Drawn To The Rhythm" (from Lilith Fair when I saw her perform it live). So, I was in no way prejudiced against the content going in; it was partially tracks I had an inkling I would enjoy. The thing about this album is, it feels like b-sides. It feels like the leftovers, the album has a general sense of not being up to the usual standards of Sarah McLachlan.

For example, "As the End Draws Near," is listed as a Manufacture track with Sarah McLachlan as the guest vocalist. The song is performed by McLachlan with a sound more like Madonna than McLachlan. The number is a dance-pop spectacle that is lacking in everything that makes Sarah McLachlan an individual, independent artist. Sadly, it is followed up by "Vox (Extended Remix)" which also has a pop beat laced heavily with synths, making the whole track sound . . . manufactured.

"Manufactured" or "assembled" is a good way to describe Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff. More than feeling like this is not McLachlan's best work being showcased, this feels like a collection of songs swept up and put together. In short, as an album, this is an exceptionally weak listening experience with little or no cohesion between tracks. Instead, this is a cherry-picked sampling (indeed, only the poppy extended remixes of "As The End Draws Near" and "Vox" fit well side by side). The result is a disconcerting overall listening experience.

As for the live tracks, which include "Gloomy Sunday" and a live version of "Drawn To The Rhythm," they do not push or reinterpret these already established songs. "Drawn To The Rhythm" sounds almost identical to the album version or how she performed it when I saw her at Lilith Fair. On Heather Nova's live album, Wonderlust, Nova performs some of her standards in ways not presented on the album, in "I'm The Girl" going so far as to add additional lyrics. On the songs that are established tracks of McLachlan's that appear on this album, there is no real creative reinterpretation.

Certainly, there are remixes. "Fear," "Shelter," "As The End Draws Near," "Vox," "Into The Fire," and "Possession" are all - apparently - prior Sarah McLachlan songs that have been musically retransposed. The question is, what does it add? I would pay to hear Britney Spears sing "Baby One More Time" as a soft, slow ballad (like the lyrics indicate it ought to be); nothing here is so positively reinterpreted. Nothing here brings out something deeper from the lyrics. With the possible exception of "Shelter (Violin Mix)," the remixes are dance-tempo remixes and hearing Sarah McLachlan soulfully sing "I am the spark" to a dance beat ("Into The Fire") just sounds cheap.

In short, on most of these remixes, there is the sense that McLachlan got the track right originally and this is just tweaking for the sake of putting out an album. It's not enough to offer listeners a real value, though I'm sure that diehard fans will need to have this collection anyway.

For those on the fence, the best this album presents are the lyrics of Sarah McLachlan. She is an able poet and the songs on here that she wrote generally have strong, emotionally-driven lyrics. So, for example, on "Shelter," McLachlan opens with, "Crowded into smallest spaces / While outside all of nature cries / It's known to be cruel and unfair / But there is no place to hide . . ." She has a masterful sense of poetics.

Generally, McLachlan at her piano is enough to satisfy me musically. It's a shame too often these remixes forsake her natural musical talents for pop-dance beats that dissociate themselves completely from the wrenching lyrics she has written. It's unfortunate especially because usually the more we get from an artist who is a genuine artist, the better. This might well be the exception that proves the rule.

The best track is "Shelter (Violin Mix)" which maintains the emotional resonance of the lyrics with its musical depth. The most insulting of the dance remixes is probably "Possession (Rabbit In The Moon Remix)" which ends this haphazard collection of tracks on a ridiculous note.

For other Sarah McLachlan reviews, check out my reviews of:
Closer: The Best Of Sarah McLachlan
Laws Of Illusion


Check out how this album stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page where reviews are organized from best work to worst!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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