Album Review: Mary Black – Stories From the Steeples

19 Jan

“Marguerite and the Gambler”: story-singing at its best

Stories from the Steeples: a masterpiece from Mary Black

What a fine singer Ireland’s Mary Black is. Unfussy, gimmick-free and capable of switching from confessional intimacy to assured declaration in the space of a phrase, she always puts the song’s story first. The effect can be breathtaking, catching out the listener with a vocal catch or a sung-through line that will break your heart or make you laugh out loud, depending on the lyric.

In years to come, Black’s new album Stories from the Steeples (her first new set since 2005) might well come to be seen as her masterpiece – and considering the quality of her work throughout the last quarter of a century, that would be some achievement. Few singers would have the ability to pull together such a disparate collection of songs – modern folk numbers, soft Celtic rock ballads and a delightful bonus track, the pastiche chanson “Fifi the Flea”- and weave them so effectively into the cohesive whole of this record, which ranges across a rugged emotional landscape, full of troughs and challenging heights.

The thrilling story-song “Marguerite and the Gambler”, the troubadour’s jaunty, evocative signature tune “Mountains to the Sea” (written by Shane Howard and Neil Murray, and featuring an unexpectedly sedate and subtle duet between Black and Imelda May), and the joyous, shambling “Walking With My Love” (on which Black is joined by Finbar Furey) provide the album’s top notes. But the listener is never lulled into a false sense of security. There are shades of darkness in many of Black’s interpretations: the bleak, calm-after-the-storm assessment of a relationship’s uncertain future (“Faith in Fate”); the searing anti-war song “All the Fine Young Men”; and the measured reassurance of “Steady Breathing”, a song written by Chris While to comfort his ill sister.

Janis Ian puts in a welcome appearance on “Lighthouse Light”, contributing guitar and vocals to a simple, foot-tapping meditation on distant threats and prayed-for safety.  “Wizard of Oz” is a touching summation of the longed-for qualities that provide the narrative of the much-loved children’s story, turning them into a mature exploration of the chasm between hope and realistic expectation. And “One True Place” makes a sweet case for some kind of afterlife.

For me, though, the standout track is “The Night Was Dark and Deep”, which evokes a universal experience of childhood that echoes into adulthood, with its lingering traces of vulnerability and the realisation that despite our parents’ best efforts to conceal trouble, an insight into their unhappiness is a rite of passage for everybody.

Black has produced the album with Billy Robinson and throughout, she has the support of a driving, vibrant band led by Bill Shanley and Pat Crowley. Stories From the Steeples is a majestic piece of work that yields new treasure with each listening.

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2 Responses to “Album Review: Mary Black – Stories From the Steeples”

  1. queenofokay January 20, 2012 at 5:13 am #

    You like “Marguerite and the Gambler”, so what do you think about Black’s earlier “story-songs”, such as “Anachie Gordon”, in comparison? Great review, by the way.

    • Piers Ford January 21, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

      Thanks! I think “Anachie Gordon” was beautiful and helped to establish Mary Black as a force to be reckoned with on the narrative/folk terrain. But for me, listening to and contrasting her interpretations across the years, her voice and technique have developed much more texture. She might have lost some of that earlier crystalline purity but there is greater depth and experience, which she uses with such understated skill. At the risk of sounding like a broken record myself, I think she’s another singer (like Judie Tzuke)who is continuing to blossom in maturity and deserves a much higher profile beyond her established fan base.

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