Suzanne McDermott,
Out Under the Sky
(Rosema Red, 1999)

Out Under the Sky is a collection of 12 Yuletide songs ranging from the familiar to the traditional but less familiar, with one newer song bringing the album to a close. Suzanne McDermott's unadorned voice and guitar make a simple and effective presentation of the well-chosen songs.

The album relies exclusively on McDermott's voice and guitar playing, and they are up to the challenge. Her voice reminds me somewhat of Joan Baez, with slightly more edge especially noticeable on the higher notes, and she chose the songs very well to take advantage of its qualities. The guitar is strictly an accompaniment and does not overshadow the singing, and McDermott's arrangements are varied enough to differentiate the songs.

I liked the first part of the album the best, with its traditional music. It begins with a very nice version of "The Holly and the Ivy," including more of the extensive lyrics that most recordings do. The next three songs are less familiar, starting with "The Angel Gabriel," a Devonshire carol I'd never heard before that pays more attention to the Annunciation than the birth. "Lo, how a Rose e'er Bloomin'" is a lovely German carol with English lyrics. "King Herod and the Cock" is another carol new to me, with a melody the liner notes say can be traced to an 11th-century Danish ballad.

"Coventry Carol" is more familiar than these, and McDermott's version captures its bittersweet tone, although I wish she'd stylized the vocals a little less. Another unfamiliar carol is "My Dancing Day," a song that sounds like a dance tune slightly adapted for Christmas by changing some lyrics and putting the words in Jesus' mouth; it would be interesting to hear it juxtaposed with "Lord of the Dance." "Patapan" has a melody more familiar than its lyrics, here sung in the original French.

"Angels We Have Heard On High" bridges the change between the old and the new. It's followed by the haunting "I Wonder As I Wander," which McDermott sings and plays beautifully. "(In the Bleak) Midwinter" is less successful here; I found the vocal stylizings meant to add emotion to the song instead distracted from its lyrics and melody. "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" is nicely rendered as a pure folk song here.

The final song, "Winter," seems like a very nice song but somehow didn't work for me. It just doesn't sound cold enough, despite the icy lyrics. Perhaps the warmth inherent in the voice-plus-guitar arrangement here distracted from its impact.

The liner notes are brief but very informative, adding to my appreciation of the album. A little history of each song is included, as well as complete credits to those who contributed in various ways.

Out Under the Sky is a pleasing addition to one's selection of Christmas music, especially for aficionados of traditional folk music who are interested in some traditional songs that are very seldom heard.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]