Mary Smith,
Of Rogues & Lovers
(self-produced, 2003)

Something about traditional songs seems to encourage experimentation. I've heard "Whiskey in the Jar" put through as many permutations as I've heard musicians sing it, and "As I Roved Out" seems to have been rewritten for every soldier who ever marched. Some of these musical acrobatics are very entertaining, but sometimes I just want to hear the song, straight out and clear, with lyrics rescued from the pronunciation of ages past and rendered comprehensible to the modern ear. Mary Smith clearly shares this enthusiasm for the sound of the song itself, and she delivers with her 11 tales Of Rogues & Lovers.

Of Rogues & Lovers is consistently expressive, at the cost of some subtlety. The instruments are used for heavy illustrative effect, as with the fluttering, broken wing echoes of the mandolin in "If I Were a Blackbird." The arrangements are equally plain, with a small collection of musicians recreating the enthusiasm and simplicity that might be found in a neighborhood porch band. Smith's vocals are powerful and clear, sometimes overwhelming the other aspects of the songs. She sings with a level of emotion and emphasis reminiscent of a Broadway belter -- as though she's trying to reach ears in the last row. It's an approach that works well with driving party songs like the magnificent "The Humors of the King of Ballyhooley," but that bluntness drains some of the charm from more delicate pieces like "The Golden Vanity" and Andrew Connell's "Swan Song." The chantlike repetition of the chorus and the comparative hesitancy of Smith's performance on these more ephemeral pieces suggest that she's striving to create a more mysterious atmosphere, but natural forthrightness always runs over such careful attempts. It may be that her natural style is just too bold for the frailer side of folk. If so, it's worth the sacrifice for the buoyancy she brings to "The Newry Highwayman" and the imposing force she presents in "Crazy Kate."

None of this should be taken to mean that any tale on Of Rogues & Lovers is unwelcome. The album offers a wonderful selection of traditional stories, either recorded too rarely or in unusual variants. Smith understands well how to keep these narrative songs a narrative -- how to emphasize the pacing and drama of a story without disrupting the tempo. Her bold style lends a coy ambiguity to the often-grim "As I Roved Out" and a sharp edge to the sad "The Snows They Melt the Soonest." This is rich theatre presented by an artist with rare joy in her craft, and every tale here is fit to inspire its own collection of variants and sagas.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 20 March 2004

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