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MARY BLACK Stories From The Steeples 3U records TUCD 024 (2011)

Mary Black

There's a conceptual thread to Mary Black's 'Stories From the Steeples' that suggests vocal artistry from on high. The songs are carefully picked, the subjects are all but interwoven and her emotional input is ever present. It's an album that is well paced, superbly sung and beautifully realised by her band.

As ever Mary sets herself the task of compiling a set of songs that she believes in strongly enough to be able to interpret their true meaning with real feel. She then shapes them into a coherent whole that allows the album to ebb and flow and bring out the resonance of her voice.

And what a voice! Mary has an understated style but her delivery is always focussed on the lyrics, to colour the characters, elucidate the metaphoric imagery or simply revel in the art of story telling. No phrase is ever hurried and equally no lyric is ever over sung as she explores the essential nuance of a song with a mix of clear diction, an occasional extended vowel and an ascending vocal sweep that brings real impact.

She brings her vocal presence to an array of songs to make them her own, from Ricky Lynch's story telling narrative 'Marguerite And The Gambler' and Paul Kelly's childhood recollection of parental disharmony on 'The Night Was Dark and Deep', to Eric Bogle's anti war anthem 'All The Fine Young Men' and the sweeping arrangement of her son Danny O'Reilly's 'The Night Is On Our Side' (one of three songs he contributes to the album). It is also the closest Mary gets to a Stevie Nix crossover style with real commercial potential.

And then as if to confirm her natural vocal ability, she positively sparkles on three duets; trading verses with Finbar Fury on his self penned, banjo driven 'Walking With My Love' and adding a little in the moment giggle as if surprised by the sheer delightful feeling of the song. 'Mountains ToThe Sea' is the opening duet on the album and surprisingly features Imelda May. The song is built on the back of subtle instrumental textures with Pat Crawley's drifting piano lines and accordion accompaniment along with an uplifting chorus and potent bv's.

The third duet finds Mary with Janis Ian on 'Lighthouse Light' which is truth is a triumph of harmony singing over a rather mundane song.

There's almost a Darwinian thread to the album as the strongest songs bring out Mary's best performances. This is particularly so on Danny O'Reilly's love song 'Faith In Fate' on which she moves from a whispered vocal intro over acoustic guitar and piano lines, to a gentle vibrato before finally extending her range to wrap her voice round the lyrics and envelop the song. The formidable Ritchie Buckley adds an inspired sax break on the song with arguably the most mainstream radio potential.

For the most part, 'Stories from The Steeples' showcases Mary as an intuitive interpretive singer who digs deep to unravel a song's core integrity. Nowhere is this more evident than on the beautiful and poignant Chris While and Julie Matthews penned 'Steady Breathing'.

And it's that integral connection that that makes her a great singer with an ability to transform a good song into something memorable and a decent album into an overdue reminder of what we've been missing for six years. And though most of the material is routed in the Folk and Country, and never strays too far from ballads, Mary's evocative voice pulls the listener into the songs ensuring a nice flow to the sequencing and the feeling of a musical journey.

'Stories from The Steeples' is a celebratory triumph of one of the enduring contemporary voices of our time. Mary explores feelings, moods, meaning and emotions in a succession of songs that always intuit the writer's intent. On the spiritual 'One True Place' she sounds like Joan Baez, with a momentary quavering vibrato, some breathy emotive phrasing and a total feel for the lyrics. It's a song that comes late in the set and restates Mary signature style on an album that will please fans but probably falls short of bigger crossover appeal.

But perhaps that's not the point on album that so vividly captures the essence of voice and song.


Review by Pete Feenstra


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***** Out of this world | **** Pretty damn fine |
*** OK, approach with caution unless you are a fan |
** Instant bargain bin fodder | * Ugly. Just ugly

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