Mark McNeil,
Reporter's Notebook
(Songscribe Music, 1998)

I wanted to like this recording a lot more than I did. The concept sounded terrific: a reporter from Hamilton, Ontario, writing songs inspired by different stories he's worked on. Unfortunately, only a few of these songs touch the listener on a personal level. Most are preachments disguised as songs.

The one great exception -- and the one song that comes closest to greatness itself -- is "Poet Behind Those Eyes," a moving and evocative portrait of a man who, after coming out of a coma caused by an accident, has no memory, but is able to define and rediscover himself by writing poetry: "Robert Boates wrote a poem today / Awakened on a page." It's a rich and musically tender song, because it tells the story of one man skillfully enough to involve us emotionally.

"The Day 1005 Cried" also works, though not to the same extent, since it deals with the general rather than the specific as it relates its chronicle of steelworker layoffs and how the union reps broke down crying at a media conference. It also has a pertinent musical bridge, with the tune turning into "Hard Times, Come Again No More."

Most of the songs, however, are just too obvious and preachy. We know that pollution and downsizing and out of control technology are bad, so instead of telling us that, the artist should show us in a way that we haven't seen before. To sing that "The sky, the water and land, go together hand in hand" doesn't do the job. "Sky, Water and Land" is the kind of wimpy song that gives environmentalism a bad name, complete with global village (rhymes with "pillage") imagery.

"Turn Off the Lantern" is another sermon in song, but even the melody is an unchanging drone. These are ideas we've heard over and over, and that sense of "heard it before" is present in his historical song, "Trail of '98" as well, with the lesson being, "The only real gold in the Klondike / Is what you take home in your heart." Thanks, but we already knew that.

As a songwriter, McNeil makes some quirky word choices. He rhymes his title, "Ghosts of Gold" with "men from old," which makes the listener ask, "men from old what?" "Men of old" would seem to be the proper phrase. And in "Starting Over Again," he sings, "My mind firmly made / Was never afraid, to start again." Does he mean his mind was made up? It's as though he's clumsily deconstructed an idiom for the sake of a rhyme.

The sole non-McNeil song brings little to the party. "Lady Franklin's Lament" has an interesting lyric, but is fairly tedious in its melodic monotony. That's the name of the game when it comes to old ballads, I suppose. Three instrumentals vary the mix, and they're quite well done. McNeil is a fine guitarist, and has good sidemen backing him up. "Wooden Mistress" is a good tune with a catchy hook, and "Roll Over Segovia" shows a masterful slide guitar technique, though the "Steeltown Hula Medley" is pretty inconsequential.

Adding to the problems is the CD's none too crisp engineering. McNeil's voice, on such songs as "Lady Franklin's Lament," is set back too far in the mix, so that the lyrics are difficult to understand, particularly since he doesn't enunciate them all that clearly. In "The Way," he uses some kind of filtered mike in the chorus that makes it even harder to comprehend the words by increasing the sibilance until every "S" sounds like a rainstorm, a liability when the line is: "Is this the way it's supposed to be?"

McNeil shows promise, but he needs to be more specific. He's proven he can do it in at least one song, and it shouldn't be hard, considering his background. Reporters report about people, and if McNeil would stop pontificating in vague generalities about his concerns and instead show how these things affect individuals, he'd write much better songs. With the exception of "Poet Behind Those Eyes," there's not much here I can recommend.

[ by Chet Williamson ]