Karen Mal,
Dark-Eyed Sailor
(Waterbug, 2005)

Based in recent years in Austin, Texas, Karen Mal is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with an appealing, quietly smoky voice. Dark-Eyed Sailor, clearly a labor of love, is pretty much as its title implies: a collection of Anglo-Celtic folk songs and ballads. There are a couple of modest exceptions: "Wildwood Flower," an American parlor tune published in 1860 (as "I'll Twine 'Mid the Ringlets"), and a Kate Rusby song, "I Courted a Sailor," a dead-on imitation-trad piece. This is happily atypical of the sort of music one associates with Austin, possibly explaining why Mal went to New Jersey to record it.

As the title also indicates, these are largely standards which will be instantly recognizable to anyone who listens to recordings of the native music of the British Isles. The title song, "I Live Not Where I Love," "Matt Hyland," "The Snows They Melt the Soonest" and others have been British folk-club chestnuts for decades and covered on records inestimable times. So, however, one might point out, have the pop-jazz standards associated with the American Songbook. Performers revisit such material regularly because it is of exceptional quality and because they hope to render it new through their own unique interpretations. There is nothing wrong in principle with the concept or practice of "standards."

Mal's arrangements bring Rusby's to mind: a small, sinewy ensemble wrapping around the lyrics but never threatening their position at the forefront. The difference, no small one, is that whereas Rusby is unmistakably a Yorkshire lass, Mal is very much an American. British and Irish folk singers who tackle American traditional songs usually try to reimagine them as they might have sounded had they been native to their own soil. (Contrast, for example, a typical Celtic-band reading of "Lakes of Pontchartrain" with Hank Williams'.) In Mal's case, one thinks of her fellow American Connie Dover (who, come to think of her, is well overdue for a new album). Dover, on the other hand, does much of her recording in Scotland, and she is far more deeply involved in creative reworking of the material than Mal is. Mal is an American performer doing Anglo-Celtic songs as Anglo-Celtic artists would do them.

Still and all, for what it is Sailor is a decent and accomplished disc, perfectly agreeable listening pretty much throughout. To my hearing it falters only once, with a too light and dry version -- Mal's vocal is just not up to the task -- of the dark and dank ballad "The Unquiet Grave." It is probably not happenstance that my favorite cut is "Do You Love an Apple," also the song with which I am least familiar. The album concludes with Mal's beautiful mandolin-instrumental version of "The Last Rose of Summer."

by Jerome Clark
11 November 2006

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