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Shelagh McDonald - Album CD (album) cover


Shelagh McDonald

Prog Folk

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3 stars Generally, if asked to describe Shelagh by way of comparison to other artists, I'd probably say she's like Joni Mitchell crossed with Sandy Denny, but with a richer singing voice than either. On this first album though, she reminds me mostly of Judy Collins. The comparison is partly vocal - their voices have a very similar timbre - but it's also to do with the arrangements, the mix of repertoire, and how those choices affect her singing performance.

On this album, 5 of the 11 tracks are covers - one a traditional song, and four by other singer-songwriters - leaving 5 of her own compositions (one recorded twice in two very different arrangements. Generally speaking, the cover songs are weaker than Shelagh's own compositions. For all of them, she uses a pickup band, whose performances often veer dangerously towards vapid country-tinged soft rock, especially on the penultimate "You Know You Can't Lose' (the worst track), and to a lesser extent "Richmond". Her vocal performances on these tracks always maintain a beautiful tone and line, but lack the same emotional connection as on her own material. Both characteristics (the band arrangements, and the beautiful but emotionally distant vocals) remind me of Judy's work, except that Judy always chose stronger material to cover. I am however a fan of "Waiting For The Wind To Rise", stronger band and vocal performances lifted by some excellent jazz piano (apparently from Keith Tippett? my CD edition has no musician credits). I also except the traditional song "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme" from such criticism - here she accompanies herself with her own excellent guitar, and delivers what may be the definitive performance of this song.

Her own songs are generally much stronger. She uses the band only once - for "Mirage", which is distinguished by it's vibes solo. Elsewhere, Nick Drake's arranger Robert Kirby orchestrates two of her compositions, "Ophelia's Song" and "Peacock Lady" - the effect again reminiscent of some of Judy Collins' work in the mid 60s. I'm lukewarm on these orchestrations - I prefer the second, self-accompanied version of "Ophelia's Song". Otherwise, she accompanies herself on guitar, or piano on "Crusoe", and proves herself a particularly deft guitarist especially on "Silk And Leather". Most importantly, she really sings these songs, without that sense of detachment

I have the CD re-release, which adds 8 bonus tracks - the compilation track "Jesus Is Just Alright", which I find completely jarring (a go-nowhere rock track where Shelagh doesn't even sound like herself), and seven demos for songs which were mostly included on the subsequent Stargazer album. In all honesty, I prefer the bonus tracks to most of the original album. One track didn't make it to Stargazer, "What More Can I Say" - probably left out because of some heavy-handed lyrics in a couple of the verses, but I love this song a lot. Her early Joni Mitchell influences are very strong in the guitar songs - similar use of tunings, picking style, and preference for pedal point chord progressions, and similar melodic tropes (particularly Joni's fondness for the falling minor 6th at phrase endings or other key moments). There is also a piano-only demo of her transcedent "Stargazer". Though I don't know why we needed the 'false start' as a separate track.

I feel guilty only giving this three stars, because in the short time I've known Shelagh's music I've really come to adore her -but this is definitely the weaker of her two original albums. Moreover, given that this is a prog site, I'm not really sure that anything here really counts as prog?

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Posted Tuesday, September 27, 2016 | Review Permalink

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