Mary Black – Speaking With The Angel – 3 U Records/Pure Pleasure Records – vinyl

Mary Black – Speaking With The Angel – 3 U Records (1999)/Pure Pleasure Records (2011) PPAN 014 180-gram audiophile stereo vinyl, 51:32 ****: 
(Mary Black – bodhran, vocals; Donal Lunny – bouzouki, electric bouzouki, guitar, vocals; Bill Shanley – guitar, vocals; Rod Quinn – drums, percussion; James Blennerhasset – double bass; Pat Crowley – keyboards, accordion, piano, electric piano, Hammond, vocals; Brendan Power – harmonica; Alvin Sweeney – vocals; Frank Gallagher – fiddle, viola, low whistle; Ciaran Tourish – fiddle; Nollaig Casey – fiddle; Liam O  Flynn – whistle, Uileann pipes; Steve Cooney – guitar, double bass, didjeridu, percussion; Brian Dunning – flute, Paddy Cole – clarinet; Laoise Kelly – harp; Colin Dunne – dancing feet; Liam Bradley – tambourine, drums, vocals; Noel Bridgeman – percussion, vocals; Liam O Maonlai – vocals; Billy Robinson – bass; Martin Brunsden – vibes; Lloyd Byrne – percussion)
Born into an intense Irish musical family, Mary Black has been pursuing a career nearly her entire life. Though she played in groups around Ireland, her recognition peaked with her solo career. Early recordings, including the platinum-best seller (By The Time It Gets Dark) elevated her local status.  Her evocative vocal style resonated with the public. Comparisons with other singers including Sinead O’Connor, Enya and Maire Brennan (Clannad), foreshadowed a crossover to UK and American markets.
Among her musical peers, Black is held in esteem. Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez and Mary Chapin Carpenter have recorded and performed live with her. Subsequent releases of The Holy Ground (1993), Circus (1995) and Shine (1997) enhanced her commercial viability. Black attempted to expand the folk roots contexts of her previous work, with varying results. One aspect that never wavered was the purity of her voice, which has been utilized by English magazine What Hi-Fi?  in ascertaining the sound quality of hi-fidelity systems.  At the core of her music was the tonal connection to Irish aesthetics. Twenty-five years into a memorable career, her legacy was captured in a documentary Still Believing, and the critically acclaimed CD (Full Tide) which included songs by some of her favorite composers including Bob Dylan. Additionally, she contributed original material, consisting of more personalized songs
One of the key, transformative projects was Speaking With The Angel, first recorded in 1999. Merging some of the modern electric instruments with the traditional music that emanated on earlier projects, the songs are sophisticated and share a worldly perspective. Side One opens with an emotional rumination, “Turning Away”. After a slow groove on keyboards (Pat Crowley), the rhythm is altered to a steadier beat, accented by Donal Lunny on bouzouki. The aesthetic core is represented in the gossamer, clear vocals of Black. She is able to sustain the emotional feel, and is helped by a blended vocal chorus. “Cut By Wire” has a folk resonance with harmonica (Brendan Power) and whistle accent (Frank Gallagher). There is an up tempo country rocker (“Don’t Say Okay”) that adds fiddles (Gallagher, Ciarin Tourish) and accordion. But Black seems most comfortable on introspective numbers. On “Bless The Road” (a hymn) and “Broken Wings” her voice soars with pathos and graceful eloquence. The latter features nimble double bass work (Steve Cooney) and elegiac, indigenous pipe and whistle coloring by Liam O’Flynn.
Side Two offers a change in the album dynamics. “Message Of Love” is a freewheeling pop arrangement with a broader, almost orchestral structure. Black’s singing is playful.  But the low key sound emphasizes the singer’s formidable range. The title cut is a simple acoustic ballad with earnest vocals and discreet guitar (Cooney). In the same mode, “I Live Not Where I Love” is an inspirational Celtic ode that underlines the haunting quality of her voice. Her clear, vibrato-less phrasing is reminiscent of Joan Baez. A simple accordion accent (Crowley) and acoustic guitar (Cooney) is all that is needed. Generally, bonus material can be hit or miss, but not here. Black’s mournful cover of Sting’s “Fields Of Gold” is superb. With a slower pace and graceful elocution, the song reflects Black’s persona.
Speaking With The Angel is ideally suited for audiophile vinyl. The re-mastering by Pure Pleasure Records is superior. Black’s voice has exceptional warmth, but with prominent clarity. The acoustic (guitars, bouzouki) and Irish instrumentation (whistles, pipes) is captured with subtlety and precision. The separation is excellent, especially on layered mixes.   
TrackList:
Side 1: Turning Away; Cut By Wire; Don’t Say Okay; Bless The Road; Broken Wings; Fall At Your Feet
Side 2: Message Of Love; Moments; Speaking With The Angel’ Big Trip To Portland; I Live Where I Love; Bonus Track: Fields Of Gold
—Robbie Gerson

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