Irish singer, songwriter, and vocalist Susan McKeown, originally of Dublin but now emigrated to New York City, is widely considered to be one of the fastest rising stars in contemporary music. She has released several critically acclaimed albums, both on her own and with her New York-based Celtic/jazz/rock band The Chanting House. She has proven herself to be a very versatile artist, as two recent collaborations amply illustrate.
In 1997, McKeown and vocalist Cathie Ryan met up with pianist and composer Robin Spielberg during the making of Thomas Moore’s PBS special and subsequent album, The Soul Of Christmas. During the time they worked together on that project, the germ of an idea for a new project sprouted: to combine their considerable talents to produce an album celebrating mothers and motherhood. The result is the new collection called, aptly enough, Mother: Songs Celebrating Mothers & Motherhood, released on NorthStar Records conveniently in time for Mother’s Day 1999.
Fans of contemporary Irish traditional music will know Irish-American Cathie Ryan as an erstwhile member of Cherish The Ladies, now pursuing a promising solo career. New Yorker Robin Spielberg is an actress, composer and pianist with six instrumental albums to her credit. Her presence in the trio prevents the album from a forced filing in the Celtic section, though that’s where you’re still probably going to find it.
The album starts with an engaging song written and sung by McKeown, “Mother of Mine,” which sets the tone from the start. The song is Celtic-flavored, but one can imagine it becoming the AAA-radio hit of the collection. In fact, the strongest tracks on the disc are the ones either wholly or co-written by McKeown, and fronted by her rich, evocative voice. She co-wrote with Spielberg and sings “Jennie’s Song,” the story of Spielberg’s grandmother, who emigrated from Russia at the turn of the century. The most haunting track on the album, “Ancient Mother,”is also her creation: a traditional Native American poem sung in both the original language and in Gaelic translation, backed by a drone in a very low G, which according to the liner notes is the sound the Earth makes as it rotates. An old Gaelic lullaby, “Seothin Seo-h-O,” starts and ends with a recording of a nine-year-old Susan singing the tune, with Cathie Ryan and the present-day Susan filling it in in the middle.
Cathie Ryan provides the most traditional Irish tracks on the album: an original song called “Rock Me To Sleep, Mother,” an adaptation of the traditional Gaelic tune “Peata Beag Do Mhathar”; and a perky children’s song about her grandmother, “Grandma’s Song.” The instrumental accompaniment on Ryan’s songs is provided by the likes of Johnny Cunningham on fiddle, Cherish The Ladies’ Joanie Madden on whistles, and Whirligig’s Greg Anderson on bouzouki, among others. Her light, airy voice dances all over these eminently listenable tunes.
Robin Spielberg contributes five instrumental tracks and one song with vocal. Her singing voice is matter-of-fact, reminiscent of Julie Gold. Her instrumental compositions provide a sharp contrast to Ryan’s and McKeown’s songs: they are quite new-age-y, and sound pretty much indistinguishable from one another. Still, though, they are nice interludes, even though they aren’t evocative of much that’s maternal.
The press release for this collaboration crows that “this CD will strike a chord with anyone who has a mother, is a mother, or will one day become a mother!” I don’t know about that, but I do know that my mother is getting this for Mother’s Day (shhhh).
Although Mighty Rain, McKeown’s collaboration with the multi-instrumentalist Lindsey Horner was recorded after the Mother project last year, it was released earlier, in the fall. Where the Mother album is a warm collection full of feeling, Mighty Rain is colder, more evocative of the twilight than the dawn. Much starker and sparer than Mother, Mighty Rain reveals yet another dimension to McKeown’s music.
Lindsey Horner is, among many other things, the bass player in McKeown’s band The Chanting House. He has an extensive jazz background and, in addition to being a virtuouso on the upright bass, also plays electric bass, bass clarinet, and whistles, all of which are very much in evidence on this disc. With the exception of McKeown’s percussion, Horner most ably provides all of the minimalist instrumentation on the album. He is also a songwriter, and three of the tracks on the album are his. He and McKeown also co-wrote the album’s epic final track, the 10-minute ballad “Fishamble Street,” which you would swear is a traditional tune until you read the liner notes. The words came to McKeown after a gig in the fall of ’96, and the music came to Horner in a dream that same night. Evidently some things were just meant to be!
McKeown’s only solo writing credit on the disc is the opening track, an understated, haunting song owing a huge debt to the Irish musical tradition called “Stone Boat,” about a man who builds a boat out of stone to bring is family out of Ireland. With a simple bass and bodhran accompaniment and McKeown’s languid vocals, this song insinuates itself into your brain and refuses to leave. Also on the disc is McKeown and Horner’s excellent rendition of the traditional song “Black Is The Color,” which has long been a highlight of The Chanting House’s live performances. Horner’s bass and McKeown’s honey-rich voice turn it into a torch song. Two tunes by Bob Dylan are a nice surprise in the middle of the album: a wonderfully jazzy “If Not For You,” and pensive version of “Dark Eyes” McKeown’s voice is a natural for pretty much anything, but particularly for soulful music such as this.
The title track, a Horner composition, sounds very much like an American spiritual but overstays its welcome at close to five minutes. It is also just on the edge of McKeown’s vocal range, and her voice shows definite strain by the end. Indeed, that would be the one production flaw worth mentioning on the album: it was recorded in a very short span of time last summer, and so there wasn’t enough time to do multiple takes. The result is a very unpolished, spare product which works well most of the time, but occasionally the rough edges on McKeown’s voice are a bit jarring. Still, though, this album is a must for any fan, and a good starting point for someone interested in sampling the wide range of her material.
(NorthStar Records, 1999)
(Depth of Field Records, 1998)