Mother: Songs Celebrating Mothers and Motherhood
North Star Music
Mother, the musical child of three established recording artists, is less a collaboration than a collective. True, Robin Spielberg plays piano on Susan McKeown's "Jennie's Song," and McKeown sits in on Spielberg's "Mothers' Celebration," and sings backup on her "Real Pretty Mama." Otherwise, the material by these two women and their third partner, Cathie Ryan, sits side-by-side without much mingling of resources. Nevertheless, the project comes off as a polished and coherent whole, with unity of purpose and style. They engaged a number of fine musicians, and their arrangements employ a great variety of textures. The three spent time workshopping the project together, and it shows.
Ryan and McKeown both draw on their Irish roots. Ryan's adaptation of the traditional "Peata Beag Do Mháthar" ("Mother's Little Pet") is a toe-tapping romp in reel-time, with an English semi-translation woven in among the lines of Gaelic and a barn-burning, if sadly brief, tin-whistle solo by Joanie Madden. Ryan's singing is reminiscent of that of Maire Brennan (of Clannad) and is equally strong in both languages. In "Rock Me to Sleep, Mother," she has crafted a setting of Elizabeth Akers Allen's potentially quaint Victorian poem (about a deceased mother) that brings out all its latent beauty and poignancy. And her "Grandma's Song," a childlike homage to her fiddle-playing ancestor, is pure delight, with a bright, buoyant texture of bouzouki and ukulele driving its simple, syncopated hornpipe melody. As a matter of fact, two of the three unfortunate things about this recording are that so little of Ryan's material is included, and that her bodhr·n playing is obscured by hand-drums and other percussion. I would like to have heard it more clearly.
The third unfortunate thing is the preponderance of Robin Spielberg's instrumentals. With the exception of "Mothers' Celebration," a festive little march with a seven-piece ensemble, most of it sounds much the same--sweet in a melancholy, sentimental way that is redolent of the "Windham Hill Style." Happily, she does not descend into new-age spaciness, and one tune in particular--the cello-and-piano duet "Walk With Me"--is quite agreeable and tasteful.
McKeown, like Ryan, includes several Irish-flavored songs. "Ancient Mother" is a setting of a Native American poem, which she sings first in its original (though unspecified) language, then in Gaelic and English, with harp and tin-whistle interludes. It's not as strange as its description sounds--it actually works in its quirky way, and hangs together well. Her version of the traditional Irish lullaby "Seothín Seo H-Ó" begins with a scratchy recording of herself as a child, singing the song as she'd been taught it in school. Though this gambit could have come off as a cutesy stunt, it doesn't--rather, it seems honest and respectful of the girl who (to paraphrase Wordsworth) was mother to the woman.
She departs from the Irish vein on "Jennie's Song," a ballad about Spielberg's Russian grandmother and the tragic death of her son while she waited to join her husband in America. The melody has an Eastern European inflection that is telling without drawing too much attention to itself.
As a whole, this is a respectable, sometimes touching, occasionally fun, and mostly enjoyable collection. If its overall tone is on the melancholy side, it is genuine and full of fine playing.
Mickey's Comedy for Kids
Walt Disney Records
There are a lot of things that might escape the notice of listeners during Mickey's Comedy for Kids. Children are unlikely to register--or at any rate, to be troubled by--the fact that the hysterical audience at "Mickey's Laugh Shack" exists only in a painfully obvious laugh-track. (Nor are they apt to be bothered by the fact that it keeps changing in size.) Perhaps the very young have not yet heard the beloved knock-knock jokes of yore, and might not realize that "Orange" is "Banana" in disguise. They probably won't lose sleep over the fact that Goofy's monologue--a tale told in toonerisms--is a transparent rip-off of the Washington, D.C., comedy troupe the Capitol Steps--and they are probably too young to realize that it's also a shameless promotion of Fantasia. (It's the story of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," with a pit-band travesty of Dukas's music in the background.) And they certainly won't be offended by the fact that the satirical ditty "Don't Laugh" is sung by a wet-blanket professor who stumbles into Mickey's club thinking it was a "scholarly symposium on Shakespeare's sonnets and soliloquies"--and after all, the truly humorless branches of academia are beyond their ken for the blissful time being. Best of all, they won't feel guilty about blowing hard-earned cash on less than forty minutes of cheap "entertainment." So go ahead, buy it. See if I care.
Scott Robinson's music reviews appear monthly in Minnesota Parent.