Mary Black - Speaking With The Angel
Mary Black's sound has always been a mixture of traditional Irish folk singers like Dolores Keane and California country-pop singers like Linda Ronstadt. Black altered the balance of that blend when she traveled from Ireland to California to record her previous album, "Shine," with Joni Mitchell's producer, Larry Klein. For her new album, "Speaking With the Angel," Black has returned to her Dublin home, and her co-producers Donal Lunny and Steve Cooney have relied heavily on fiddles, accordions and tin
whistles in the arrangements.
Despite the Irish-folk trappings of the new project, there's still a lot of California in Black's approach. Sometimes this is a liability, as when she lends a melodramatic whisper to Dougie MacLean's "Broken Wings" or an ersatz blues shuffle to Shane Howard's "Don't Say Okay." And sometimes the California flavor is a real asset, as when she massages the Brian Wilson-like chord changes on Neil Finn's "Fall at Your Feet" or when she belts out the lust-laden pop hook of Noel Brazil's "Big Trip to Portland."
Black is at her best, though, when her Irish roots and her American aspirations find an appropriate balance, as they do on "I Live Not Where I Love," a traditional folk song done up in a chamber-pop arrangement. You can also hear that balance in Black's tributes to two of her favorite singers, London's Sandy Denny ("Moments") and Washington's Eva Cassidy ("Fields of Gold").
Hot Press Review of Speaking with the Angel
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.