The Waking
(independent, 2015)

At its core -- that is, without supporting players and harmony singers in the recording studio -- Noctambule is Marla Fibish and Bruce Victor, Bay Area musicians with a taste for modern poetry. I reviewed their previous release, Travel in the Shadows, here on 7 September 2013. Like The Waking, Travel consists of poems set to spare but impressively imagined acoustic music that nods toward classical and Irish-accented folk.

Noctambule is not the first outfit to put poetry to music, of course, but it is unusual for artists to make it their central focus. One wonders if a third Noctambule recording will go in a different direction, or if this is in fact what Noctambule is. Whatever the case, Fibish & Victor, with friends (most prominently the Irish recording artist Nuala Kennedy), put forth arrangements of seven poems by the likes of Theodore Roethke, Stephen Vincent Benet (twice), Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, W.H. Auden and Jenny Joseph. This time, the poems/songs are connected by the theme of time's passage (as opposed to nocturnal wandering in their previous appearance). The opening cut, the instrumental "Bastardo's Waltz," is an atmospheric original, briefly reprised at the end. There is also a lovely, mandola-centered instrumental, written by Fibish, titled "Out of Time."

I am impressed at how seemingly easily -- though it couldn't have been easy in practice -- Fish, Victor and associates bridge the gap between words meant to be spoken and melodies meant to be sung. In such circumstances the words often overwhelm the melody, turning the recitation more into a kind of chant than a full-fledged song. Not the case here. To my hearing the approach works particularly effectively on Benet's "Sally Dupre," which lingers on the mental jukebox long after it's aired on the player. Another highlight is the title song, from a Roethke poem, an inspired meditation on one's existential state as surveyed during a morning walk. The guitar run that opens Auden's "If I Could Tell You" affords the listener the brief impression that the late Gabby Pahinui has shown up out of somewhere.

The single misfire is in the handling of Joseph's comic "Warning," which is explicitly in a woman's voice. Though Fibish is a first-rate vocalist who could have perfectly commanded the narrative (concerning a woman's vow to be unfettered and crazy when she gets old), Victor sings it, not very compellingly or interestingly. If this is supposed to be a joke, I'm afraid it falls flat.

Still, this is a fulfilling and nicely conceived recording overall. The moral of the story comes courtesy of Auden: "Time will say nothing but I told you so."

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 February 2016

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