Friday, February 24, 2012

I Hear America Singing, Volume 2

David Paul Mesler
I Hear America Singing, Volume 2
Review by Dan MacIntosh

This second volume of David Paul Mesler’s extensive I Hear America Singing series features less total poets than the first volume, with only Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg and Emily Dickinson spotlighted. It is also a youthful and passionate collection.

One song called “Wild Nights! Wild Nights!” seems perfectly suited to the late night lives of the young. “Wild nights should be/Our luxury!” mezzo soprano vocalist Hume sings on it, like a girl ready and willing to throw caution to the wind. As with other volumes, Hume is the great singer that gives voice to Mesler’s jazz-classical reboots of great American poems.

Sandburg’s poems are probably the most striking writings put to music on this second song cycle. With “Jazz Fantasia,” Hume sings Sandburg’s words about the amazing beauty of jazz. These lyrics talk about the various instruments used in jazz, and you can just tell from these lines how smitten Sandburg was with American jazz. However, as much as Sandburg loved jazz, he hated war equally. “Forgotten Wars” mentions many of the American wars America had fought in up to that point. This poem is almost a security guard against any of these battles ever being truly forgotten. Lastly, “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz” is a sort of an ode to youthful, carefree happiness.    

Dickenson poems get the lion’s share of the songs on this effort, as seven of the thirteen numbers are based on her poems. “Tie The Strings to My Life, My Lord” which deals honestly with mortality, is the most moving ballad on the album. Mesler plays simply and succinctly, as Hume sings in a passionate, yet somewhat sad voice. While many sound downright sad when it comes to speaking of death and that journey into eternity, Dickenson, indeed, seems ready for her next phase of existence. “Good-by to the life I used to know,” the last verse begins, “And the world I used to know/And kiss the hills for me, just once/Now I am ready to go.” It’s fascinating how she personifies Earth. The hills are not just bumps on the horizon – they’re more like old friends. Just as you may kiss a friend when you leave them for a trip, Dickenson chooses to give Mother Earth a metaphorical smooch goodbye.

Playful is not a word that comes to mind often when describing this mostly serious collection of songs. However, with “Me! Come! My Dazzled Face,” Hume puts her well developed opera voice to good use. She skips over the notes of this song, like a stone skipping over a lake, and comes off a lot like a happy princess in an animated Disney movie.

It was a wise choice to stock this release with so many Dickinson poems because Hume’s feminine personality just seems so comfortable with Emily’s words. Hume may not be a natural jazz artist the way Mesler is, but when she’s given the right pop-classical context to perform in, such as most of these Dickinson works, she shines particularly brightly.

It’s interesting how Mesler has seemingly retreated from the spotlight during this second CD in the project. Yet it was clearly the right thing to do. Finding the right balance between poetry and music can be difficult, and Mesler and Hume’s collaborations haven’t always worked so smoothly. This time, however, there is a balance that just sounds natural. In its best moments, you almost forget that these ‘songs’ originally began as stand-alone poems. At its pinnacle, these performances remind one of showstopper Broadway songs. They’re not just Broadway-sounding songs mind you, but some of the most intelligent musical songs ever. While Barbara Hume is the star of the show – assuming a star need even be selected – Mesler also deserves a lot of credit for giving his singer the proper platform to glow the way she does. This CD features some American singing that you really need to hear for yourself.

Review by Dan MacIntosh
Rating:  4 Stars (out of 5)

Dan MacIntosh writes for CCM, CMJ, Indie-Music, Review You, Soul-Audio and Spin.

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