on milestones

singing with the Ellensburg Women’s Chorus in the 2005

Some of you may know that I enjoy singing in choirs/choruses/chorales these days, even doing a solo every now and then, but I’ll bet few of you know that I was too shy to sing in front of most people until my second year of college. Most of my college friends could sing pretty well, and many of them were in the university chorale or the chamber choir. I loved singing, but I was too nervous and shy to audition, as much as I wanted to. Somehow, they convinced me to take a voice class. Not private lessons, but with a small group of students and one teacher, all at once.

This was safe for me to start out in. We sang everything together, until our final, and that was the first time I’d sung for real, alone, in front of anyone. It was terrifying! But it also gave me the courage to go through the audition process the next year, and I was in the chorale for the second half of my college career.

Since then, I’ve sung with Sacred Harp groups, church choirs, community women’s choruses, and a university women’s chorus (I still sing with two groups that fit in the last two categories). It’s been an amazing learning experience, and I sometimes marvel at how a person who was too shy to sing in front of a handfull of friends can now stand on stage and sing in front of hundreds of strangers.

In college, I was obsessed with singing low. I was proud to sing the alto part, and one of my fellow altos and I would frequently try to hide with the basses until our director made us go back to our section. For me, alto meant harmony and something interesting. Soprano seemed, well, boring.

These days, I sing first alto or second soprano, depending on the group and the arrangement. And the strange thing is, I’m finding that the low notes aren’t as much fun anymore, and sometimes are rather uncomfortable to sing. My voice, as women’s voices do, has been changing and maturing over the years. When I moved over to the second soprano section in my community women’s chorus last year, it was the first time I acknowledge that shift to anyone, including myself. It was a bit of an identity crisis at first, but I’ve come to embrace it.

Back in that voice class in college, my instructor called me a “chicken soprano,” and she was right. I could sing higher than I was willing to (or brave enough to) back then. Now I know I can, and I have quite often. The strange thing is, I can feel my voice changing. I started noticing this on octave leaps that would take me up to the C above middle-C, and beyond. They didn’t feel strained anymore — I just thought it, and then sang it with confidence.

My ear is much better. I have a good sense of certain notes and placement and intervals, although I couldn’t tell you what a perfect fourth or a major seventh sounded like to save my life. Those names never stuck with me. But, I can sight read pretty well, if you give me a starting point, and back in the day I had to hear it a few times before I could follow along.

So, I’m moving into my upper range, and it feels fine. But also weird. Sometimes, I can’t trust my sense of place anymore, because what feels like a G may be something else entirely now. My voice breaks are shifting, or maybe I’m just not as aware of them anymore.

This makes me feel less certain. Unbalanced. And it doesn’t help that I’m turning 37 this year.

Back to that voice class and the instructor who told me I was a chicken soprano… she also told us that women’s voices hit their peak maturity around age 37. To my 19-year-old mind, that seemed like a future so distant I couldn’t even imagine it, and now I’m here. Or nearly there.

People talk about how turning 30 wasn’t as big of a deal as turning 31. I get that. For me, as a woman and a singer, I think this 37th birthday is going to be more significant than either of those previous milestones. I’m just not sure if I’m ready for that to happen yet. Luckily, I have about six months to figure it out.

But we have the white wizard. That’s got to count for something.

When I agreed to review The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King (The Complete Recordings), I had no idea what reviewing a soundtrack of this magnitude would entail. My usual genres are those that have singer/songwriters, or band members who compose and perform the music. Reviewing a three hour recording of music composed by one person and performed by many was far more daunting than I ever could have expected.

In the end, I did what I could, but I feel that someone with more experience in classical music reviewing would have done a better job of addressing aspects of the music itself. My approach ended up being as a fan of the films and the books, and how the music effected my experiences with them.

Tolkien provided rich material, ready to be harvested and presented by any talented composer. And, much in the way Jackson approached the film adaptation with reverence for the source material, Shore has done the same with the soundtrack. I don’t know what I expected for the soundtrack, but the one Shore has given us fits, and will forever be what plays through my mind as I re-read the books.

and am I born to die?*

My father recently attended the 2008 Ohio State Sacred Harp Convention. Over the past nine years or so, he’s become one of the shape note (Sacred Harp in particular) fanatics who will travel all over the region to attend big singings. He loves it, but I find those types of singings to be terrifying.

When I began to sing shape note music, it was with a small Sacred Harp group in Lexington (Kentucky) that met monthly. They were very casual and spent time learning the songs. Eventually, I ended up signing with an even more casual group that met weekly. It was fun and I became a better singer because of it.

At some point, I attended the statewide singing in Kentucky, and it was such an overwhelming and frustrating experience that I never wanted to go back to anything like that again. They sang songs I didn’t know too fast for me to even think of learning them. What kind of fun is that except for the handful of speed demons who may have known the tunes? What kind of community does that build? What kind of worship experience?

The thing is, the Sacred Harp is named thusly because all of the words are based in Biblical scripture. Shape note singing is fun, but it’s also kind of like being at church, and for a long time, it was the only place where I felt safe enough to be in the mental state of worship. No matter who you were or where you came from, if you wanted to sing with us, you could sing with us, judgment-free.

Maybe my father can experience that at the big singings because he is a shape note fanatic. He has audio files and CDs of recordings of songs, and listens to them to help learn them. He also practices at home, reading from the songbook and beating out the measures until he knows the tunes well enough to lead them.

I could do that, but frankly, I’d rather have that worshipful, musical experience with others than practicing alone. If that means I don’t do it very often, and on my own terms, then I guess that’s what I’ll have to do.

* This is the first line of Idumea, my father’s favorite tune.

michelle mangione

Acoustic music fans take note: this album should be in your CD collection.

I have this theory that drummers who become acoustic singer/songwriters have more rhythmically interesting songs than many of their contemporaries. Michelle Mangione is another in my short but growing list of drummer-turned-guitarists that exemplify my theory.

Along with drums and guitar (steel string and nylon), Mangione plays the piano and organ, and she plays them well. Listening to Life Beneath the Sun, one would never know that it is an independent recording with only a handful of studio performers besides Mangione. The classical guitar instrumental "Interlude" shows off her chops on that instrument, just in case you hadn't figured it out by then.

Musically, she reminds me of Melissa Etheridge, but without the corporate rock sheen that has coated Etheridge's career. publicity photo of Michelle MangioneLyrically, she has a lot to say in her songs. The album contains excellent instrumentation, as mentioned before, however the production is done in such a way to emphasize the vocals — a hallmark of singer/songwriter albums. Very little obscures the message and poetry Mangione is trying to convey with the songs on Life Beneath the Sun.

"America the Blue" examines some of the hypocrisy practiced by Americans who revere and support our warriors until they come home. The topic is approached from the side and not a direct confrontation. "I met a hero at my doorstep / He only did what he had to do / He surely had found the American dream come true / He reached out for a nickel with his right hand / Another long, cold lonely night and / He never felt so red white and blue…" Even the poppy, head-bopping music doesn't convey any sort of preachiness. The song is particularly poignant given the reports of conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The chorus of "Prisoner of War" is one that regularly plays on repeat in my mental jukebox. "Are you ready to release me / I am ready to be freed / You know I can't escape this feeling anymore / And if time is all it takes me / I will loosen up these chains / Just enough to make my getaway / And I won't be your prisoner of war…" I can't say I have ever been in a relationship where I have felt that sentiment, but I do like the imagery of the lyrics and the musical hook. Plus, the song incorporates one of my favorite unusual acoustic pop instruments: the accordion.

One of my complaints about singer/songwriters is that so many write songs that have a lot of "I" and "you" in them. Mangione is no different, but as a friend pointed out to me recently, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes writers need to have a period of introspection, or it could be that is where their talent lies. In this case, Mangione is able to convey all of her I's and you's in an interesting and mostly universal way, which is more than I can say for some writers.

Other stand-out songs on the album include "Anything Better," "I've Become," and "Man With a Gun." The album on a whole is a solid mix of toe-tappers and songs that make you go "hmmm…," and a few do both. Overall, I am pleased with Life Beneath the Sun. The production is well done, the songwriting is solid, and the musicians are on their game — good indicators of an album with some staying power.

Life Beneath the Sun is available from CDBaby and iTunes.

Also published on Blogcritics.org.

folk in the city

This collection runs the gamut from solo acoustic singer/songwriters to blues to alternative rock, and nearly everything in between.

For some people, the words “folk music” conjures up images of old white guys with acoustic guitars singing squared up traditional tunes. The listeners of Forham University’s WFUV (Bronx, NY) are among those who know better. Every week day they get fifteen to seventeen hours of music in a program block called City Folk.

In the industry, the genre is known as adult album alternative, but for the common people, it’s just folk music; as in music about the common person and for the common person. Stylistically, this can range from solo acoustic singer/songwriters to blues to alternative rock, and just about everything else in between.

Along with playing recorded music, the station hosts and broadcasts concerts performed at Fordham University and local New York venues, as well as in-studio interviews and performances. Since 1998, WFUV has been putting together annual compilations of the in-studio performances, and last fall they released City Folk Live 9.

This collection is music-only, which is a pity since some listeners would probably enjoy hearing snippets of the interviews as well, but the trade-off is worth it. Eighteen live tracks by eighteen very different artists and bands results in 72 minutes of music that keeps the listener’s attention. As with listening to the radio, if a particular song does not appeal to you, just wait a bit (or skip it) and something different will follow.

The performances and production are so spot-on that except for a bit of reverb to give it a concert hall feel, it almost sounds like slick multi-tracked studio production. The sheer volume of in-studio performances allows the City Folk Live producers plenty of options to avoid weak recordings while still selecting tracks from both this year’s darlings as well as long-established musicians.

City Folk Live 9 has something for everyone. My personal favorites are Brandi Carlile’s “Throw It All Away,” Rosanne Cash’s “House on the Lake,” and Alejandro Escovedo’s “Arizona.” All of the other tracks are quite listenable, including the blues and soul tunes, which are outside of my usual genre preferences. One of the advantages that a live recording has over a studio recording is the energy and presence of the musicians. This can draw in listeners who may not have otherwise paid attention to the performer.

Fortunately for WFUV, but perhaps not quite so fortunate for those outside of its listening area (and who are unable to listen online), the only way to get a copy of City Folk Live 9 is to become a member of the public radio station. It seems a small price to pay for a strong folk compilation such as this.

Track listing:

  1. David Gray, "The One I Love"
  2. James Hunter, "No Smoke Without Fire"
  3. Wood Brothers, "Luckiest Man"
  4. Rosanne Cash, "House on the Lake"
  5. Alejandro Escovedo, "Arizona"
  6. Mason Jennings, "Be Here Now"
  7. Gomez, "Girlshapedlovedrug"
  8. Nicolai Dunger, "My Time is Now"
  9. Ben Taylor, "Nothing I Can Do"
  10. Brandi Carlile, "Throw it All Away"
  11. World Party, "Is it Like Today"
  12. Sonya Kitchell, "Train"
  13. Dr John, "Such a Night"
  14. Ben Harper, "Morning Yearning"
  15. Lewis Taylor, "Stoned"
  16. My Morning Jacket, "Off the Record"
  17. T Bone Burnett, "Baby Don't You Say You Love Me"
  18. Josh Ritter, "Thin Blue Flame"