Travel in the Shadows
(independent, 2013)

Last time I reviewed an album of poems set to music, it was Kris Delmhorst's Strange Conversation (28 April 2007). Delmhorst used a variety of pop, jazz and folk approaches to carry works by Lord Byron, Whitman, Browning, E.E. Cummings and others. Hers was an extraordinarily ambitious project, and against the odds it worked. I say "against the odds" because poems and song lyrics aren't the same thing at all, even if some particularly insufferable singer-songwriters are wont to designate themselves as "poets."

Noctambule, a duo comprising Marla Fibish & Bruce Victor (joined on this recording by sympathetic musical pals from their native Bay Area), takes a more genre-specific approach to its fusion of verse and melody. If you aren't listening closely to the words, you will likely presume you're hearing Irish folk ballads. Indeed, one song is exactly that, the scantily covered -- sorry, that's a pun in this instance -- narrative of sexual adventure "Madam, I'm a Darling." The arrangements, spare but often intricate, are drawn out of the stringed instruments one associates with the latter-day Irish-music renaissance. Indeed, Fibish is known for her work with noted Irish folksinger Jimmy Crowley and the Irish-American band Three Mile Stone.

As the title suggests, the theme is night wandering. The album is appropriately atmospheric, full of dark ruminations and anxieties but also night's joys and erotic possibilities. Fibish & Victor drop the words so comfortably into their melodic settings that one is never troubled by thoughts that song and poem have to be incompatible (or at least have been in the West in modern times). Fibish performs most of the vocals in a kind of stately alto that perfectly serves the material. The songs and performances are accomplished and moving.

I haven't read Tennyson in a long time, but I can't believe I'd have forgotten the blood-soaked, wildly melodramatic murder ballad "The Sisters," clearly inspired by the traditional "Young Hunting" (Child #68). (Bob Dylan recorded it as "Love Henry" on his 1993 World Gone Wrong.) Edna St. Vincent Millay ("Recuerdo"), Theodore Roethke ("A Suddenness of Trees") and Pablo Neruda ("Travel in the Shadows") appear here, too. Surprisingly to me, however, it is Robert Service who is most prominent. He claims no fewer than four cuts, including one titled "Noctambule." I had never thought of Service as anything but a kind of comic "manly" versifier, remembered if at all for the Gothic joke that is "The Cremation of Sam McGee." Noctambule finds another side of Service, a Bohemian poet known to few. Two classically tinged original instrumentals round out the program in splendid fashion.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 September 2013

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