Friday, October 20, 2006

Album Review: The Girl I Used to Be

"The Girl I Used to Be" is the debut demo album of Helen Hitchens, a gifted folk singer/songwriter. It is recorded in her home studio with just herself and her guitar. Although obviously raw in production, it is a staple in my rotation of folk albums. This review comes around because I listened to it just before listening to Carole King's "Tapestry", one of the most acclaimed albums of all time, and I did not see much difference.

Before you laugh at me, let me point out the obvious. "Tapestry" is the better album. But ...

If you pared the fourteen songs on "The Girl I Used to Be" album down to the ten best, and expanded them a bit with professional arrangements, arranged for professional musicians, and gave the whole treatment professional production, it would stand up to anything out there. Perhaps there is a lack of stylistic variety, if compared to "Tapestry", but that is more like complaining about Handel because he is not as good as Bach.

Loosely biographical, the lyrics run the gamut from penetratingly biting ("What Was That?") to tender ("Light in the Sky"). All facets of love are examined - the first blush ("For The First Time"), the hard times ("Sometimes"), the ending ("The Man That I Once Knew"), the rebound ("One Wish") - Helen digs deeply into her experiences to give personal memories a universal and poignant treatment.

While I focused on the lyrics, a music album is no good without music. Helen has some very engaging melodies on the album (Light in The Sky, How Do You Stop, Waiting For the Train) - and the rest are quite pleasant. I would like to see her push her boundaries a bit more - I would also like to hear a second album!

Helen has a lovely, throaty voice reminiscent of Carly Simon's, that struggles a bit in the high range. I believe that is nothing that couldn't be propped up in a studio setting. Her guitar playing is lovely - rhythmic and musical, yet never overstated. I wish my own acoustic strumming could achieve such steadiness.

It makes me proud to see how much talent our family posesses

Thanks sis

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Poetry: Charlotte Bronte

I have just finished reading "The Complete Poetry of Charlotte Bronte", so I thought I would voice my comments. I haven't read "Jane Eyre", nor studied her life, so I could be way off base with my thoughts, but an uninformed approach isn't always bad.

My first impressions were that she was a competent, work(wo)manlike poet, but nothing special. Her poems lack the imaginative spark of Keats, or the trenchant lyricism of Tennyson. I gained the impression of a well educated student writing to show a mastering of all the outward forms of poetry, but in a seemingly mechanical way. That's not to say her poems are bad, just that she does not stand out in particular (she certainly had an impressive vocabulary). Some notes in the book, though, sparked my interest.

Firstly, most of her poetry was written between the ages of 13 and 17! Wow! What a precocious child! Seeing as most poets take a while for their art to mature, it would have been interesting to see what she produced in her maturity, if she had kept up her poetical writings.

Secondly, she had a whole mythical continent with their own kingdoms, histories, and fantastical beings that she used to wite about. At age 15 she gave up writing about faeries, etc, as they were only fit for childish amusement. It is only in the last eighty years, starting with Dunsany and Eddison, and culminating with Prof. Tolkien's seminal works "Tree and Leaf" and "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics", that fantasy has emerged as an area that society will take seriously. It is sad to see creative areas unexplored due to society's dysfunctions.

Thirdly, I thought her unpublished poetry to be more interesting than her published works. If, as I guess, her unpublished works seem to better represent her character, than it is quite a shame that her more interesting work had to be suppressed while more societally approved material was released. My favourite poem of hers was her unpublished "The Grave of Percy", set in her mythical kingdom of Angria twenty years after the death of the titular hero.

Still, from the roughly thirty poems that she released, we have some interesting glimpses into her character. The savage last stanza of "Gilbert" must have shocked her audience, and the defiant "Passion" is marvelously ambiguous, depending upon whether you read it as being spoken by a man or a woman.

The sense I gained of Charlotte Bronte was of an incredibly smart and gifted woman, stuck in a society that did not allow women to "accomplish". Her poems are full of waiting, watching, observing others, living vicariously, or just admiring nature, but the undercurrent of tension running throughout her poems hints at discontent, frustration, and a fierce will held in check.

I am glad now that we live in a society where women are allowed to contribute their talents, thus instantly doubling the number of people who can express their many talents to benefit both themselves and the rest of society. Great contributions have been made to all endeavours of human life by female scientists, mathemeticians, artists, singers, politicians, etc that one wonders how we ever functioned with only one arm, as it were. It is too bad that it came too late for Charlotte Bronte.