Friday, November 25, 2011

CD Review – A Midnight Clear: Christmas in Mitford, by Bill Leslie

Bill Leslie’s latest CD is a yuletide offering that serves as a soundtrack to Christmas in Mitford, a mythical mountain village that provides the basis for a series of best-selling novels by Jan Karon, who also designed the stunning winter wonderland scene for the album cover.

Although many of the song titles are based on characters and situations from Mitford, you don’t have to be familiar with Karon’s literary universe in order to appreciate the disc, which also contains traditional favorites and is full of the spirit of the holidays.

Leslie plays his trademark acoustic guitar and piano, as well as Celtic whistles and keyboards, and is joined by a solid lineup of musicians on violin, cello, oboe, guitar, piano, and percussion. The mostly acoustic instrumentation gives the music a warm, down-home, hearty feel, keeping with the vibe of the season.

My favorite tracks on the album are “Mitford Carol,” “Wexford Carol,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” and “Father Tim.” The simple beauty of these tunes best exemplifies the quiet awe and tranquil majesty of this particular time of the winter.

That being said, the entire album is a joy to listen to. Leslie and his band are virtuosic without being showy or flashy, and the compositions, arrangements, and performances will put you in the mood to celebrate Christmas in Mitford, or wherever you are.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, November 12, 2011

CD Review – Safely in the Arms of Love, by Michael Stribling

Keyboard wizard Michael Stribling takes his usually sunny disposition in a bold new direction with this dark tour-de-force that soundtracks an epic journey from the highlands to the city to exile and, finally, safely into the arms of love.

Stribling’s imagined story takes place in the foreboding depths of the medieval ages, and as such, he has cooked up a musical alchemy that is every bit as brooding as those dark times. But as in those days, there are bright spots in the music as well, so all is not doom and gloom.

This is not to say that the doom and gloom is bad. In fact, this makes the music that much more dramatic and compelling. The bits of sunshine that do peek through provide glimmers of hope for a better future.

The set opens with the subdued pop anthem “Spirit of the Highlands,” which gains momentum in the middle section with some propulsive percussion and establishes an initial sense of hope and confidence. “The Royal City” is as regal as it sounds, with synthesized horns heralding great expectations.

Clouds begin to form with “Dark Times (The Inquisition),” a dynamic track that interestingly starts out sounding like a ubiquitous piece of incidental music from the 1960s/1970s Mission: Impossible television series and unlikely becomes the most rocking piece on the CD, like dark pop.

The highlight of the album is “Miserere Mei,” a total creep-out that sounds like a Gregorian chant gone horribly wrong, but in a good way. After a very gothic, Transylvania-style pipe organ intro, an eerie choir of male and female voices chants “Miserere Mei” to a crescendo, followed by a dark synthesized passage, and then more chanting. The choir sounds similar to the choir in John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” suite from the Star Wars prequels, as well as the choir in the musical motif during the encounters with the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This one track encapsulates the spirit of the CD and is especially spooky at night.

Although not the final track, “Desolation and Absolution” is a peaceful resolution to the involved themes preceding it. The serene and tranquil tones instill a sense of quiet release and expectant hope for the future.

Once again, Michael Stribling has used his musical canvas to render a portrait of a visceral world of drama and emotion, and it is quite the experience to behold.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review – Red Leaf, Grey Sky: Piano Improvisations, by Catherine Marie Charlton

Sometimes less truly is more, as exemplified by Catherine Marie Charlton’s latest album, a short but effective collection of six piano performances.

Quantity does not necessarily translate into quality, and while Charlton’s release may be short in the former, it is bountiful in the latter. The entire CD unfolds in less than thirty minutes, but it is so pleasantly engaging that you can enjoy it twice as many times as a full-length album that may not be as enjoyable.

The great thing about a short album such as this is that you don’t have to skip to your favorite tracks if you’re pressed for time. And every song on this album is so delightful that you can listen to the CD in its entirety several times over.

Of the six tracks, Charlton composed two and improvised the rest, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to the album. Every song has a solid and intricate structure to it. None of the tracks meander; they’re all tight and to the point, all the while displaying a sense of playfulness and quiet beauty.

The last song, “The Sun Is Shining, The Birds Are Singing,” is a slight departure from the rest of the collection as the composition is very quirky and truly does personify how one might feel when the sun is actually shining and the birds are actually singing, which could also serve as an apt description of the general disposition of the album.

--Raj Manoharan