Margaret Jane,
Mate With Life
(Peddle Back, 2002)

Think of a new-age Ani DiFranco with a lot of vibrato a la Tori Amos' vocal twirls. That's the image that initially came to my mind as I listened to San Francisco Bay Area performer Margaret Jane and her debut release. Unfortunately, Jane doesn't yet have DiFranco's intensity nor Amos' control, but she makes an earnest effort to try to reach them.

Mate With Life starts out with a song that seems to be some sort of gentle scat number, but according to her publicity, both "Blue Glass," the opening track, and "What," the album's closing song, are written in a language that Jane created. (Even on other songs, Jane sometimes lapses into this language here and there -- sometimes at the very start, as on "Red Cardinal" or in a chorus, a la "Intention.") That knowledge does make me wonder exactly what she is saying; were she singing in Dutch, for example, I'd be trying to find a way to translate the lyrics into English. Unfortunately, I'm not privy to a dictionary for Jane's language.

The songs performed in English offer up some of Jane's philosophy about life. Politics mingle with new age-style thoughts in "Intention." Here's where the DiFranco resemblance comes into play, what with lyrics that point out "No federal safety regulations on guns bought and sold in the USA/Yet, there are four categories for teddy bears!" However, it seems that Jane only sees this reality when her angel disappears, and "veils slowly start to rise and I see things as they are." Overall, the song feels slightly didactic, particularly in its closing lines. There are times when the lines don't scan as well as they might, and that feeling crops up again on "Red Cardinal." Jane performs solo with acoustic guitar, and occasionally it just doesn't do enough to assist her. Her frantic strumming on "Red Cardinal" adds to the song's intensity, but it doesn't help the words fit readily into the melody she's singing.

However, Jane seems to like bridges that can change a song's mood. "Tingle" takes a quick change and lets Jane play with her lower range -- a gentle, throaty voice. "Steady Still" keeps her in high notes, bringing on that Tori Amos comparison again. While Jane's acoustic guitar is nice on this number, it would be curious to hear the song performed with more accompaniment; would a violin and/or piano perhaps heighten the mood even more?

While it generally seems that Jane needs to work more on her song writing in order to reign it in and give it a little more control, "Horizon's Hip" demonstrates her future promise. Sung mostly in her lower range, it's a gentle number that doesn't shoot for any vocal tricks. Here, the solo acoustic guitar complements her voice and doesn't fight against it.

It would be easy to write off Margaret Jane as yet another new-age style singer-songwriter. However, there's a glint here and there that demonstrates there may be more to her than initially meets the ear. She might want to emphasize those highlights on future recordings.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 13 July 2002