Susan McKeown &
The Chanting House,
(Prime CD, 1996)

The first thing that struck me about Susan McKeown and The Chanting House's CD Bones was the cover art. It's dominated by a dark assemblage that resembles an overloaded Joseph Cornell construction, a shadow box cramped with found objects, family photos and a single Celtic cross. It seemed an unusual choice for an artist I'd heard mentioned in conversations of things Celtic and traditional.

But as I listened, I began to think that this eclectic image was a good choice after all. "Ce Leis e?" is the CD's opening track, a melancholy but measured tune on the subject of a man's emotional distance. McKeown's voice demonstrates a solid presence immediately, backed by music that's folk with touches of pop, not quite traditional and not quite modern. The result is low-key and interesting, with strong lyrics and an elegant ending by cellist Michelle Kinney. "Albatross" comes next, again focussing on a relationship and its difficult boundaries. Chris Cunningham's delicate guitar part guides here, while Susan's voice soars across a wide chorus, grabbing attention and elegantly punctuating the song. From these folk pop beginnings comes the closest thing to a "radio friendly single" here, "Snakes/Mna na hElreann," whose bouncy rhythms make it almost danceable, a nice contrast with the sometimes less than cheerful lyrics. While the first part of the track is modern, the second part is traditional, as Susan runs with apparent good cheer through a Gaelic tune which translates, "There's a woman in Erin and nothing would please her more / Than to see me burning or in a grave lying cold." Cunningham's jaunty if quiet guitar playing ties these disparate parts and moods together well.

Having worked up some energy, the CD shifts directions and takes a meditative turn with "Heart," a dark jewel that evokes a sort of numbed exhaustion where even questions themselves cannot be asked. It's a wonderful, ethereal track, with The Chanting House providing a quiet, well-blended soundscape. The song seems modern, but is performed with instruments that lend it an ancient feel, a timelessness similar to some of the songs of Loreena McKennitt. Next comes a straightforward but strongly voiced and upbeat mix of "Westron Wynde/Westlin Winds", a pair of older tunes which provide a more traditional moment immediately after the modern sensibilities of "Heart." Joe Trump's periodic drum work here nicely drives the song along, while cellist Michelle Kinney and fiddler Johnny Cunningham provide some beautiful string work. It's a well-done take on traditional material, hinting at McKeown's future, but the transition between the two tracks is a little abrupt.

"Salome" returns to a darker melancholy mood, nicely textured and fleshed out with background vocals, Jimi Zhivago's Hammond organ and mellotron, and a interesting turn on bass clarinet by Lindsey Horner. McKeown's dervish-like refrain of "So dance, let it whirl and let it spin / Cause it makes no sense and you're not supposed to win" touches nicely on the release of despair, if perhaps only to find hopelessness. This idea of release is built on in "Jericho," an upbeat and even rollicking track, despite its imagery of weeping angels and jealousies. Chris Cunningham's ringing guitar again drives the song, while famous piper Jerry O'Sullivan (lately and most oddly sighted with Don Henley on his "Inside Job" tour) puts in a guest appearance on the uilleann pipes, mixing well with Horner's tin whistle.

Again the mood changes with "Love & Superstition," nervous energy driven by the fine drum and guitar work mixed with despair. "Thanks for the lesson, I hope I learned it well," Susan says sarcastically, as if previous advice just wasn't quite enough. The traditional returns with the Irish keen "Gorm," carried only by Susan a cappella and providing a nice display of her vocal talents. But again a meditative moment ends with a sudden stop at the edgy "Curiouser," led by Susan's driving vocal line and the ringing propulsive guitar parts of Eoin Woods and Zhivago, a nicely apt sound for the song's lyrics of manipulation and angst. The poetic imagery of the lyrics blends well with the music's energy here to produce a unique gem.

"I Know I Know" follows, a well-crafted and contemporary-sounding tale of a inappropriate potential love affair and the temptation to close one's eyes and have it anyway. "Does it make you feel better / Does it make you feel good?" asks the chorus, but the answer, short term or long term, remains unspoken. With the driving percussion and guitar work here, it would be easy to picture this song on a good alternative radio station were it more electric and less warmly traditional, but the broadcaster's loss is the eclectic music fan's gain. The ominous "Storm in a Teacup" follows, with themes similar to those of previous songs, involving betrayal, confusion and questioning. "Is your world turned upside down? / Is it hard for you to love me now?" makes a nice chorus vehicle for McKeown's voice, but the song seems redundant, recrossing ground already covered elsewhere.

But emerging from this, the final track, "Bones," is unique. McKeown's vocals are eerily treated into the background, claustrophobically forced behind the music even as her emotions rise, "tongue tied" and feeling "so foreign," forgotten and angry. The framing music includes the hornlike sackbut played by Tom Zajac, and this adds to the strange disconnected feeling of the track, introspective and eclectic. It's a reductionist song, ending abruptly yet somehow appropriately, not presenting any great solutions but simply displaying what's here and asking that it not be ignored.

As it turns out, the dark assemblage on the CD cover is an apt enough metaphor for this diverse project, as it strays from near pop to classical folk to introspective singer-songwriter territory, mixing emotional and lyrical tones from an unusual palette that includes the traditional and the personal. The transitions are sometimes jarring, and not every object assembled is a priceless gem, but what's here is worth hearing. "Don't throw the dirt away," McKeown whispers hauntingly as the final track ends, and while Bones is not the first McKeown CD usually recommended, its strong songwriting, emotional power and fine musicianship should not be forgotten. Hopefully, the unique charms of Bones will not be thrown away in favor of McKeown's better known and more traditionally based works.

[ by Ken Fasimpaur ]

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