A Review of the CD
by Heather McLeod

by Heather McLeod

BellaMuse: BMP–2-4004
Copyright: 2002 BellaMuse Productions


This review is written by Dai Woosnam,daigress@hotmail.com, 7/02

There are occasions when a review writes itself. I just hover over my typewriter like a bird of prey and the keyboard looks up at me and fires off in all directions.

It may not be “total sense” that it comes up with – indeed the conclusion of the review might be DIAMETRICALLY wrong - but by golly, the review just writes itself. Whether it be a paean of praise, or a review that reads more like a “hatchet job”.

But this is not one such occasion. Here I feel, the truth has to be TEASED out. Seldom does a CD from a performer quite new to me, puzzle me so. But this one certainly does.

In fact, it brings to mind a phrase of Sir Winston Churchill, who, in 1939 described the Soviet Union thus: “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.

Okay, preamble over. I play the CD for the first of 5 plays: 2 more than I usually give review CDs. I am immediately struck by the voice. This is a voice that is SERIOUSLY TUNEFUL. The kind of voice I have been waiting to again come out of Canada (McLeod works out of Montreal), since Canadian Bonnie Dobson flashed in and out of my consciousness some three decades ago.

The first track “She is More (don’t get me wrong)” remembers the golden rule: catch your listener straight away, and there is a fair chance he will stay hooked. And this opener really succeeds. By the third time you play it you are singing along: a very infectious melody. Sweet harmony vocals by Rebecca Campbell.

But the words of this song do not yield up their meaning that easily. There is something mysterious about them. And it has to be said that I was to find this slightly cryptic quality again and again in the lyrics of most of the 14 self-penned tracks. Now, this leads us to a simple fork in the road here: do we go right (and take the view that the writer deliberately eschews "the obvious"), or go left (and conclude that whereas she is a fine singer who also has a melodic gift, maybe the art of lyric writing is still in its relative infancy in her hands)?

In other words, sometimes meanings are slightly veiled due to a natural reticence on the part of the writer to “spell it out”, and sometimes they are veiled because, well, lyric writing is a darned difficult art, and they cannot pull it off in rhyme. With regards to the latter: hey it is nothing to be ashamed about. Even my fellow countryman Dylan Thomas used a rhyming dictionary to compose his poems. (Forget “rhyme”: some lyricists cannot even pull it off in free verse!)

Whatever school Heather McLeod belongs to, I know not. But I have to say that when it comes to my EAR, the album really works for me: when it comes to my BRAIN, it is less successful. That is to say that I cannot think of an album this year that will give me greater pleasure just playing away in the background, while one goes about one’s daily tasks, eats breakfast, strokes the cat etc. But when it comes to seeking meaning from the lyrics, well, I found it less rewarding.

And here is a request for her follow-up CD: as there is so much about this album that that exudes a certain “distinction”, could we have a change of direction when it comes to the liner notes? What do I mean?

Well, they are handsomely produced. They include all sorts of weird and wonderful facts: on track 12 for instance, I see multi-instrumentalist David Woodhead (who is the producer, by the way), is credited as playing “mandolas, accordion, furnace and sewer grate”. Eh?!! [Splutter, splutter: I nearly choked on my cornflakes!] On the same track, we have the following also shown: “Heather McLeod: vocals, hand clapping”.

I just LOVE it. What next? Finger-clicking? I jest of course. And seriously, I really DO like this quirky stuff. On track 10 is listed this little beauty: “Al Cross: upside down snare drum”. Ha! This must be for real, because one could not make it up, even if one tried!

This album has been a real musical education for me: I don’t suppose I ever thought much about snare drums. I know that the 14” snare is by far and away the biggest selling drum in the world, but I guess I never realised until this album, that there was a “top” and a “bottom” to it. Ignoramus me! Well, the album made me go out and inspect a snare drum. We all know the very special sound it makes, but how many of you were like me in not knowing there were gut strings stretched across its bottom to help produce the added vibration? Well, thanks to this album’s idiosyncratic liner notes, I am that much wiser now.

And before I leave this quirky “attribution of instruments” thing: I note that on most tracks Heather McLeod is shown as playing “nylon string guitar”. God Bless the NYLON string guitar. Most of us have had one in our time, but it is (a) lovely to see it take a well-deserved bow, and (b) great to hear, because it really DOES have a fine sound all of its own. And McLeod can play it authoritatively. (And a word here for all the instrumentalists and harmony vocalists: they are top-drawer.)

But back to the liner notes. A chance was missed here. Apart from the sublimely quirky stuff I have mentioned, the notes are largely given over to serve as a “lyric sheet”. Mistake. And here is for why.

This woman’s diction is just perfect. Every word is totally clear. Even if the listener had English as his/her fifth language. So why do we need the lyrics? Much better to use the space with her comments on the “creative process” underlying the birth of each particular song.

Yes I know that a certain Robert Zimmerman once famously said “my songs mean what they mean to YOU, man!”: but that really won’t wash. Oh sure, on one level he is indeed right: but where we have songs that we see through frosted glass, such authorial notes can give the listener that vital entrée into them.

Would I buy this album? Yes. But only because I like the ambience it creates. For her next album, I would far sooner this artiste try a change of direction, and pick 14 great songs by relative unknowns and really put her stamp and interpretation on them. Her website tells me that this was not her first recording. And I bet her previous work was also self-penned. Why are so many in the Folk World so obsessed with writing their own material? (Answers, on a virtual postcard please, to my home in cyberspace shown below.)

Not least, I would love to see this “interpretative album” because she has the voice, the coterie of musicians, and - I have a hunch – the real intelligence to make a splendid fist of it.

Dai Woosnam
Grimsby, England

Track List:

All songs written by Heather McLeod.

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