PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in July 2003, contributed by then Senior Editor Bill Park. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!
Chick singers are a dime a dozen, expensive at that price, and mostly downright forgettable. There are a handful of female artists who can rock my world, but most are from the past or distant past. Yes, I still play the occasional Joni Mitchell CD, and even Judy Collins seminal “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” gets a spin now and then. Janice and Grace get played some, too. But Melissa Ethridge and Mary Chapin Carpenter are about the only contemporary female artists that I listen to with any regularity.
Enter Mary Fahl, definitely NOT a ‘Chick Singer”. Most certainly an Artist of the finest caliber.
I had been a fan of “The October Project”, and I missed my chance to see them before they broke up. So when I saw that former “T.O.P.” lead singer Mary Fahl was appearing locally, I made it a point to go and see what she had to offer.
Her show was a couple of days after my birthday, in the middle of a celebratory multi-Gemini group-abuse week, and I almost did not make the performance. Life issues conspired to delay my arrival. The weather was arguing with itself, and dark clouds rolled angrily. When I finally walked into Pittsburgh’s Rosebud, the show was already underway.
There was a smallish crowd. Enthusiastic and substantial, but not nearly the crush that I had expected. Still, it was an interesting mix of people. I saw a formerly-famous female lead singer in the room, and a current singer for the Pittsburgh Opera, and a small cadre of musicians who always seem to know about the cool, under-appreciated talent mixed in with the few hundred attendees.
The clever layout of Rosebud disguises its large size. Every floor seat is a good one and the stage is not too tall and is shallow, pushing the performers toward the audience. There is an intimacy between the performer and the audience in this room, and there is no way to hide problems or problematic performances.
Ms Fahl was apparently having some technical difficulties with her stage monitors and in-ear monitors; both acting up, as monitors are want to do. But she seemed to maintain a calmness in spite of the troubles, chatting comfortably with the audience and carrying on as if there was no problem, when no solution appeared to be in sight. Where other performers would be whining, bitching, or throwing a tantrum, she acted as if life was beautiful, and gave the audience 110% of what they came to hear. I could say that I was very impressed with her professionalism and coolness in the face of adversity, but it was more than that. She seemed perfectly serene and clearly focused, and at times downright transcendent.
Her band was under. Under-supportive, under-rehearsed, under-dressed, and under-involved. Perhaps under-paid, I don’t know. They noodled around behind her, sometimes in time, as often in the way of the songs as not. They may each be great musicians individually, but with them as a group, she would have been better off performing by herself. There was no crispness, no tightness to their playing.
In spite of the band, Mary Fahl entertained the crowd a full measure, left to a standing ovation, came back for a long encore, and gave a full measure more. When the performance was over she came out into the audience and talked and signed autographs until the last patron was satisfied and had gone home. I don’t see how a performer could have given more. Although I assumed that I knew what I would see and hear, I did not anticipate anything like the experience that I had that evening. It was the kind of event that drew me to become a musician and songwriter, and there have been far too few of those events in recent years.
What does she sound like? This is not rock and roll. No dance mixes or funky grooves, either. She is unlike any other popular performer today. Her lyrics are deeper and richer, like a Marc Cohen or a less self-involved Joni Mitchell. Her voice is the real treat, though. It is a force of nature, pulling you along as she rages against the heavens in full throttle; or softly, intimately singing to a private part of your soul that only she knew was there. Scary stuff.
I was probably the last to leave. I did not approach Ms Fahl that night, other than to thank her for a wonderful evening. I would like to have talked to her, but enough people had been pulling on her coat all night long. I was in a pensive mood. I didn’t want to be a bother. Maybe I was a little afraid to meet the person behind the music. I huddled into my leather and walked out into the threatening skies, touched in ways that few know.
My first exposure to Marry Fahl was via the October Project, in the mid 1990s. The songwriting, the themes, and the sweep of the music placed it far above contemporary offerings from similar acts like “Grey Eyed Glances” or even the follow-up “November Project”. The music would be classed as Adult Contemporary. It has Celtic leanings, but this is no Irish tin whistle band. The recordings were technically less than thrilling, but the music was simply amazing. Though I enjoyed every part of the performances, I have to mention the wonderful music and lyrics by Emil Adler and Julie Flanders, and the beautiful harmonies supplied by Marina Belica. “The October Project” disbanded after an absurdly short career. They had been dropped by Epic, even though their second CD cracked the Top 200, which was no mean feat.
Mary Fahl was the lead voice in “The October Project”. It is impossible to judge her current work without referring to her past association with “The October Project”, because “The October Project” was so well conceived and executed. That may be unfair. After all, “Wings” was certainly no “the Beatles”, but Sir Paul still managed to muddle through and create a successful career as a solo artist. But the fact is, that it was hard to separate Mr McCartney from his association with “the Beatles”, and it will take some time for me to separate Mary Fahl from her stint with “The October Project”.
In 2001 Mary Fahl released a solo EP, “Lenses of Contact”, which was somewhat weak but showed promise. Mostly, the songs and/or arrangements were several sizes too small for her stunning voice.
Now, several years later, Sony Classical has released her first full length solo effort, “The Other Side of Time”. It is an ambitious project, covering many styles and types of music and displaying her vocal talents. Her voice is as rich and powerful as ever, and it is a simple joy to listen to her handle a lyric or phrase.
I am a big fan of intelligent, adult lyrics and good melodies. I enjoy a little introspection, with tales that express life and evocative themes that document our journeys through it. I like songs that are capable of bringing well thought out and full-blown images to the mind of the listener. Ms Fahl writes a very full and convincing lyric, and where the music falters or fails to impress, there is not a point at which her voice fails to please.
I am not as excited about the music. In a world where Nora Jones is considered to be a breakout artist, this music is exceptional. But like the songs of Nora Jones, I’ve heard a lot of this music before. Again, the ghost of “The October Project” clouds my judgment. Their artistic vision was very clear.
Taken on it’s own, “The Other Side of Time” CD falters from lack of focus…. Too many styles, too many choices. It might even be considered to be too long, if it was possible to tire of her voice. There are some very filmic orchestral pieces, songs with jazzy, ethnic, and folk leanings, and she nails them all. Two pieces are from films. “Going Home” is from “Gods and Generals”, and “The Dawning of the Day” is from the soundtrack of “The Guys”. Both are beautiful. “Dream of You” and “Kindness Can Be Cruel” have a Julia Forham groove, some might even say Helen Morgan or Polly Bergen. “Ben Aindi Habibi” and “Una furtive lagrima” go in interesting and unexpected directions, and the lyrics of “Annie” paint a lovely tale in a more traditional Irish style. The types of songs that work best for me are in the vein of “Raging Child”, “The Other Side of Time” and “In The Great Unknown.
But it is possible to offer the audience too much diversity, and that is the case here. Every individual song is good, yet the sum total does not hang together as an entity. Is she a jazz artist? A torch singer? Adult Contemporary? Ethnic? In a perfect world she could be all of these things and more. In our world, attempting to offer so much diversity on a single release makes a recording hard to market and tends to confuse the CD buying public. Giving it due credit, “The Other Side of Time” is a more than credible first solo effort. I’m still playing it daily. I hope that Ms Fahl finds an artistic focus to match her voice for her next release.
For the first time listener, her most enjoyable recording is still the first “The October Project” CD. Why? Because the songs are grand, and incredibly well crafted pieces of music. The themes are grand. The arrangements are superb. The vision is clear. The performances are spot on. And the sum total is big…. big enough to support Ms Fahl’s complex and substantial voice.