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Like many others, I must admit begin a tad underwhelmed with Mary Black's last couple of albums, a lack of direction characterising one, and en-of-cycle lassitude the other.
So it was that I approached this, her latest offering, with some trepidation. After just one listen I was convinced that I had heard one of the albums of the year thus far.
Mary Black is not a songwriter, but she has this proprietary way with material she likes; she wears it like a second skin, investing it with the breath of life and total conviction. For the songs she chooses are about people - their loves, vanities, joys, disappointments and triumphs - songs written by friends and those who have touched her, and some of us, as they go by on the road of life.
As with singers like Kristin Hersh and Emmylou Harris, Mary's is a most recognisable voice and one song in particular illustrates what a wonderful individual gift she possesses. 'Bless The Road', written by Steve Cooney is so full of love for one who has taken a different path that it cannot be anything other than personal, and utterly so. The lyrics of 'Moments' by Martin Hayworth articulate the occasional experience of revelation, where life itself seems encapsulated in an instant. It begins with a finger-picked acoustic and builds up with strings, bouzouki and accordion being gradually added to the mix. Beautiful stuff, indeed.
Those familiar with Ron Sexsmith's work will be delighted with Mary's reading of his title track. 'Speaking With The Angel' is a lovely sparse affair, its sentiments powerfully realised by having only four instruments in the mix, a clear case of less definitely being more.
There is great feeling in this album not only in the performance, but in the instinct applied to the choice of material. These songs will be as significant as 'Without The Fanfare', 'Bright Blue Rose', and 'Carolina Rua' were, and are.
This album is an affirmation, if needed, that Mary Black is still, very likely the best female singer in this country. The girl with the dungarees, observed in the back room of a Castlebar pub a quarter of a century ago, is back with a vengeance.
If it is a benchmark in excellence that you seek, a life-affirming statement, then this is the album for you. Staggering stuff.