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Shelagh McDonald - Stargazer CD (album) cover

STARGAZER

Shelagh McDonald

 

Prog Folk

3.88 | 7 ratings

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sl75
4 stars Shelagh is much more in control on her second album - all her own compositions apart from one traditional song, and so much stronger than her first album as a result.

The first half of the album is dominated by sparsely-arranged tracks - more or less solo performances self-accompanied by guitar or piano, with only minimal intervention from backing singers or other musicians. The guitar songs, "Rod's Song", "Liz's Song" and "City's Cry" are all very reminiscent of early Joni Mitchell in guitar style, melodic approach and lyrical preoccupations (meaning beautifully detailed character sketches and observations of daily life - not the self-examination of later Joni). The key word for "Lonely King" is sparseness - a sparse piano accompaniment, plenty of space in the melody, much use of the reverberation of the studio. My closest reference point would be some of Laura Nyro's songs like "Map To The Treasure" (though Shelagh is much more vocally restrained). Later in the album, "Canadian Man" returns to this kind of mood, though not at the same length.

The turning point for the album is the traditional song "Dowie Dens of Yarrow" - for the first time we hear a full band, in an arrangement that captures the drama of the ballad, building slowly in restrained way to a powerful climax, the building driven mostly by the drums and to a lesser extent the organ. One of the highlights.

We're mostly in poppier territory after this - "Baby Go Slow" and "Good Times" are both light folk-pop, very US West Coast. "Odyssey" is a more substantial song, played with the appropriate gravitas - though to me it's more like, say, CSN's "Wooden Ships" in character.

Finally we get to the title track, the song that first made me fall in love with Shelagh when I heard it on the Dust On The Nettles compilation - Shelagh's rich voice and piano, lifted even more by Robert Kirby's amazing string arrangement, and finally that wonderful choral coda setting the epitaph of Johannes Kepler. A tiny masterpiece, this song alone is reason enough to own this album.

The CD re-release has five tracks (four songs, one recorded twice) laid down for Shelagh's unfinished third album (obviously abandoned when Shelagh disappeared). It sounds like she was heading in more of a Carole King direction - particularly on the twice-recorded "Spin", which has a fantastic pop hook and would surely have been a big hit if released at the time. "Rainy Night Blues" is very similar, "The Road To Paradise" slightly heavier. "Sweet Sunlight" is mostly piano, very gospel-tinged. Although I like these songs (especially "Spin"), I don't think I would have been into her subsequent work if she'd continued in this direction. Though the Stargazer demos that appeared as bonus tracks on the rerelease of Album didn't really prepare me for the scope of the actual Stargazer album, so it may be that these songs aren't that representative of what a completed album would have sounded like.

I love this album far too much to rate it any less than four stars - but again, is this prog? I think you could put a good argument for the title track and "Dowie Dens of Yarrow" - and *maybe* "Lonely King" or "Odyssey", although I think that's drawing a longer bow - but I'm not so sure the argument can be made for the album as a whole.

[Since I've been prosecuting the "if-Shelagh-is-here-Joni-should-be-here-too" argument on the forums: In answer to the example of "Stargazer", I would submit "Judgement of the Moon and Stars", "Let The Wind Carry Me", the studio version of "Shadows And Light", and "Paprika Plains". In answer to the example of "Dowie Dens of Yarrow", I would submit "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"]

sl75 | 4/5 |

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