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Album review: Marian McLaughlin “Spirit House”

September 14, 2015

Marian’s artistic vision is painstakingly conceived and the reward for the listener who spends a little time exploring Spirit House is to discover ten intricately glowing miniature worlds, each of which will surely generate an emotional resonance in anyone who’s ever mused on the nature of the human condition.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Marian McLaughlin - Spirit House 300x300Spirit House is the new album from experimental folk guitarist and songwriter Marian McLaughlin who chose the unusual title after noticing the ubiquity of spirit houses while visiting Thailand. These “houses for the spirit of the land”) are shrines to the protective spirit of a place, normally in the form of a miniature house or temple and placed in an auspicious spot. While Marian’s previous album (2014’s Dérive) was informed by the French Situationist Guy Debord’s theory of dérive, Spirit House is less influenced by it, although there are still parallels in her writing process. The result is music which grows intuitively from Marian’s own interior monologue to create music and lyrics which are constantly changing, evolving and developing. All this might suggest that the music on Spirit House is going to be challenging to listen to, nothing could be further from the truth. While an awareness of the creative process behind the songs is helpful, it’s not essential and the ten songs here stand in their own right and can easily be appreciated by a casual listener.

In a recent email conversation, Marian explained that she wrote much of the material for Spirit House while visiting Thailand and that she often felt that her songs were like little restless spirits residing within her and she that she had to honour their their presence somehow. She told me: “I saw an analogy between erecting a spirit house and creating an album…if I made a record containing these songs, it would be like providing them with a little spirit house to reside in”. She continued:

“Though some of these songs may be abstract and beyond my own narratives, they stem from somewhere within my psyche. They reside within me, I am their vessel, yet I view my songs as sacred spaces that I in turn step into, in the company of other musicians. With Spirit House, I invite listeners on a journey through these intimate and ornate songs.”

Musically, Marian continues her collaborative partnership with multi-instrumentalist and composer Ethan Foote, who wrote the arrangements for the album and their work together ensures an artistically successful meeting of experimental folkrock, chamber music and lyrical vision.

This is immediately apparent on the opening song, ‘Even Magic Falters’; the (Phrygian?) modal string arrangements conjure up mental images of East Asia and sit well with Marian’s own electric guitar playing, the classical influence of J.S. Bach – himself partial to the Phrygian mode in his cantatas. This heady potpourri is balanced by the more poppy, Western-flavoured choruses which are driven by Alan Kayanan’s drums, Neil Brown’s trumpet and Ethan’s bass while Brian Falkowski’s flute soars like birds flying home to roost at sunset. The whole is topped with Marian’s warm, honeyed vocals in a lyric which references both Harry Houdini and Arthurian legend. A flying start to the album and one of its many highlights.

Written from the perspective of a listener, the lyric for ‘Your Bower’ draws an interesting parallel between the bowerbirds’ construction of bowers to attract mates and musicians’ use of songs to attract audiences. The couplet “Twigs bent like arcs and vectors / Natural architecture” is wonderfully evocative while the song’s arrangement successfully paints a matching sound picture, largely through the skilful playing of the invoke string quartet of Nick Montopoli and Zach Matteson (violins), Karl Mitze (viola) and Geoff Manyin (cello). The song has a delicately lilting feel mirroring the mating dance of the bowerbird and Marian’s classical guitar is precise yet fluid.

Third song and lead single ‘Kapunkah’ is a tribute of sorts to Thailand; the title is Marian’s phonetic rendering of “thank you” in Thai while the lyric vividly describes some of the scenes she saw during her trip. The song structure is a curious fusion of jazz-rock and Afro-pop with frequent tempo changes which, now I write it down, sounds like it simply shouldn’t work in practice – yet it does and it makes a gloriously sunny noise; it may take a couple of plays to appreciate its nuances but when you do, it’ll be your earworm du jour, guaranteed!

There’s a conceptual link between ‘Ocean’ and ‘Calm Canary of the Arctic Sea’ which is easy enough to spot from the song titles alone, although once one dives in, the lyrical content of the two is diverse. ‘Ocean’ reflects on the nature of water, from which all life ultimately originated billions of years ago while ‘Calm Canary of the Arctic Sea’ makes some cogent observations about the way in which humankind has exploited the oceans in general and marine life in particular with no thought to sustaining one of our most important natural resources. The lyrical juxtaposition of canaries and cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) is visually striking but entirely apposite: for centuries, miners took canaries into their mines to warn of potential disaster and now that we are finally realising that cetaceans can spontaneously mimic the patterns of human speech, one wonders if they, too, might be trying to warn us of dangers ahead.

In ‘Ocean’, Marian’s classical guitar is the rock on which the tides of the arrangement break; flecked with Brian Falkowski’s flute, invoke’s strings ebb and flow like the tides, sometimes lapping against the shore, sometimes crashing against it with the ferocity of a winter storm driven by the irresistible force of Neil Brown’s trumpet and Ethan’s bass.

‘Calm Canary of the Arctic Sea’, meanwhile, opens with an almost festive air with Brian’s clarinet and Neil’s trumpet dancing around Alan’s marchtime drums. Matt Hotez’ trombone introduces the clarion call of a foghorn through invoke’s string driven haar and a darkening of the mood. Ethan’s underwater bass glides quietly past, felt more than seen but still an easy target for the horn section’s harpoons. The celebratory mood returns for the coda, mocking the self-congratulatory tone of those self-styled mighty hunters who, through greed more than necessity, are driving some of the planet’s most intelligent creatures to the edge of extinction and I can only echo Marian’s words:

“Well it breaks my heart into a thousand pieces
the way we treat countless species
on this planet that we call Earth
our home, our Earth”

The natural world in which we live – of which we are part, if we could only see past our own alienation – is the inspiration for ‘Fourth Son’, the lyric of which draws a neat analogy between flocks of birds and the proverbial huddled masses of humanity to point out that none of us has any less worth than any other. The arrangement has an understated power in its unadorned chamber-folk style and its measured simplicity adds its own emotive weight, highlighting Marian’s subtle examination of some of the negative impacts of social class and how inequality is enforced.

Although ‘Alexander’ is ostensibly about the tragic drowning of a child as recounted by his grieving mother, I suspect there may be a subtext which I’ve been unable to apprehend, although the lyric’s reference to a cormorant and the quote “True life shall not be regained” make me think that John Milton’s Paradise Lost may be of some relevance. Regardless of my failed attempt to second-guess a deeper meaning, the musical arrangement is flowing and spacious with Ethan’s restless double bass underpinning Marian’s finely-judged, introspective performance.

The phenomenon of the will-o’-the-wisp occurs in many places around the world, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. According to Wikipedia, “it resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached, drawing travellers from the safe paths”, an idea which is reflected in many folk tales where it is often associated with fairies or evil spirits. In literature it’s often used as a metaphorical device to describe unattainable hopes and it’s this latter concept which seems to be the inspiration behind Marian’s take on it in ‘Will-o-the-wisp’. A dramatic full band arrangement which is firmly in the folk-rock tradition, it’s a grippingly atmospheric song and a highlight of the album.

‘Legend of the Neighborhood’ is the second single from Spirit House. It was written in memory of Aaron Brown, a young musician who lived locally to Sarah and who was tragically killed in a shooting incident and all proceeds from downloads go to Music For Life, a music education program for young people. The lyric is a touching and affectionate portrait of Aaron, full of beautifully observed details, while the arrangement is an uptempo celebration of a life ended too soon, with a horn section which would give Tower Of Power a run for its money, while special mention must go to Brian Falkowski’s blistering sax solo.

Closing track ‘Paint-chipped Windowsill’ finds Marian in a downbeat, introspective mood brought about by the onset of winter and as such is something with which I completely empathise, even more so at the time of my writing (it’s early September but feels more like November). Marian’s guitar swirls slowly like fallen leaves caught in an icy wind, her vocals capturing the moment perfectly; it’s a song which would make an ideal soundtrack for those interminable moments which the late Douglas Adams called “the long, dark teatime of the soul”.

Spirit House is a record which repays repeated, in-depth listening; it’s not something disposable to play twice and then forget about. Marian’s artistic vision is painstakingly conceived and realised through a wealth of details which add up to much more than the sum of their parts and the outcome is a record full of hidden depths which reveal themselves gradually. The reward for the listener who spends a little time exploring Spirit House is to discover ten intricately glowing miniature worlds, each of which will surely generate an emotional resonance in anyone who’s ever mused on the nature of the human condition.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (14 September 2015)

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