Loreena McKennitt,
Elemental
(Quinlan Road, 1985)

Those who have followed Loreena McKennitt's career since the beginning have had the pleasure of watching her musical talents grow and develop into a fusion of global styles and personal creativity that have defined albums such as The Visit, which first earned her widespread notice, and subsequent recordings The Mask and Mirror and The Book of Secrets.

But people familiar only with Loreena in her latter years might be surprised by her earlier work. The earliest available is Elemental, and it shows Loreena still steeped in the Celtic roots which have always been an integral part of her music, but never again would so completely dominate it.

Even at this early phase, however, Loreena was already breaking boundaries. Although Elemental is made up entirely of traditional material, she stamped an indelible mark on each track to make it her own.

This also predates the formation of Loreena's "Idling Porsches," the core of musicians who support her work. Pretty much everything here is performed alone, multiple vocal tracks allowing her to harmonize to herself, her own guitar and keyboards complementing her accordion and harp.

"Blacksmith," which tells the tale of a woman scorned, has been recorded often, but this version sounds the most scornful of the bunch. Loreena sounds bloody annoyed in the song, as she should, and I'd hate to be the blacksmith who'd raised her ire. She follows that up with a sparse rendition of "She Moved Through the Fair." Distant bells and birdsong provide her backdrop here; otherwise, it's a lovely a cappella version that evokes true melancholy.

Next is perhaps the most famous tune from this album, "Stolen Child." For this, Loreena composed the melody around the words of Irish poet W.B. Yeats. This track marks the beginning of her tradition of bringing great poetry and prose to music. This warning against faeries is primarily told by Loreena's voice and harp, although she did add guest musicians Pat Mullin on cello and George Creer on acoustic bass to add fullness to the sound. Mullin sticks with her for the next track, "The Lark in the Clear Air," this album's only instrumental. The harp and cello make for a gorgeous duet.

If you haven't read the liner notes, the next track will startle anyone expecting Loreena's voice on the homesick ballad "Carrighfergus." True, Loreena plays harp and sings harmony, but she invited singer/guitarist Cedric Smith to take the lead on this one. Although, damn it, I wanted to hear Loreena singing, Smith carries the tune beautifully, and Loreena's faint background vocals are a perfect accent.

She's back, singing out strongly on the spritely "Kellswater" and somber "Banks of Claudy." The last of her songs on this album is the proud anthem, "Come by the Hills," which shines in its simplicity.

The final track is unlike anything else I've heard Loreena do, and it never fails to send a shiver down my spine. Written for the Stratford (Ontario) Festival production of Blake, "Lullaby" is an atmospheric presentation of several lines by poet William Blake. Beginning with a rumble of thunder, then a light touch on the harp, the piece at first is simply Loreena singing solo, nonverbal "loo-loos" -- but then guest reader Douglas Campbell launches into the poem with power and passion in his deep voice. As he rails against sin, Loreena continues to sing gracefully behind him, building to a climax that is astonishingly touching to hear.

I envy those lucky enough to be enough in the know to pick up a copy of Elemental back when Loreena first released it. It's an excellent album which signalled the beginning of an amazing career ... and, fortunately, it's still possible to find a copy and hear how Loreena got her start.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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