Kris Delmhorst,
Strange Conversation
(Signature Sounds, 2006)

As a general principle, the notion of an album made up of poems set to music chills the hearts of sensible people. It's not that no poems have ever been set successfully to music, it's just that it happens so rarely that it's easy to overlook the infrequent occasion when something worthwhile emerges from the effort. I point that out to explain why, when I first put Kris Delmhorst's Strange Conversation on the player, I was confident that I would not like it. In fact, it is acutely unlikely that I would have played it at all if Rambles.NET had not asked me to review it.

Sometimes it is good to be wrong, and this proved to be such an occasion. Kris Delmhorst made her name on Boston's singer-songwriter scene -- a fact that would not have endeared her to me inasmuch as there are those there from whom I'd walk miles to avoid exposure (good manners prevent me from naming names) -- and since this is the only one of her six recordings to pass within listening distance, I can't speak to what she usually does. On the other hand, I can tell you that Strange Conversation is, against all odds, a marvelously accomplished album.

Delmhorst is a bright and elastic vocalist, her phrasing a kind of wonder, each word it touches infused with vitality and meaning. The arrangements are far more lively, far more clearly imbued with their own personalities, than one would have imagined possible. (Speaking of imagining the impossible: how about E.E. Cummings' "Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town" as an old-time hoedown?) The settings wander over various genres, or permutations thereof; Delmhorst is at ease equally in folk, jazz, pop and rock, the distinctions blurring in her treatment.

What helps is that she is not always wed literally to the text. When necessary, she boldly rewrites poetic texts into song lyrics, as in the joyous opening cut, which transforms Robert Browning's 1847 poem "A Toccata of Galuppi's" into her "Galuppi Baldessare." This, pretty much needless to observe, amounts to another level of achievement (not to mention sheer brass): being able to stand toe to toe with one of England's most enduring poets and to walk away from the encounter without having disgraced or embarrassed oneself.

Roughly half of the album consists of this sort of daring reimagining. George Eliot's "O May I Join the Choir Invisible" becomes "Invisible Choir," and an excerpt from Walt Whitman's "Passage to India" is reborn as "Light of the Light," evoking the mysteries of mystical experience within the strictures of a song that conjures up all the pleasures of an entertaining pop tune -- admittedly, of course, a considerably more intelligent one than most. Two of the songs, including the title piece, draw their inspiration from Hermann Broch's meditation on The Death of Virgil.

Other poems, written in a fashion inspired by song lyrics, are more easily placed in their entirety into musical arrangements. James Weldon Johnson's 1922 "Sence You Went Away" -- in period African-American vernacular, thus the spelling of "since" -- draws on blues spirit. Lord Byron's "We'll Go No More a-Roving" (1817) steals its title and refrain from a Scottish folk song already old when Byron sat down to perform a feat opposite Delmhorst's: to turn a song into a poem. Closing the circle, she joins folk melody to jazz-pop vocal in a nearly transcendent performance. On the other hand, she renders John Masefield's "Sea-Fever" (1900) as a romantic, melodic seafaring folk song, just as Masefield may have wished it were when he wrote it.

Amazingly -- or maybe not so amazingly -- Delmhorst herself is the producer. She also plays acoustic guitar, fiddle, cello and piano -- a woman, clearly, of near-frightening talents -- in front of a band of fellow multi-instrumentalists, including Kevin Barry, Paul Kochanski, Lorne Entress and Chris Rival, added to which ensemble are three horn players and an organist.

Poetry and song are so seamlessly integrated in Strange Conversation that if you did no more than listen casually, you would have no idea that lyric and melody were born in separate places for different purposes. The vision and gift that have gone into the creation of this astonishing CD are formidable, but -- again, against all odds -- never forbidding.

by Jerome Clark
28 April 2007

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