Reviews of Stories from the Steeples

Reviews of Stories from the Steeples

The Whisper of Sweet Things - Warwick McFadyen -The Melbourne Age - The Saturday Age - Album Review - 10 December 2011

Gentleness can be an orphan to these times; its soft voice lost in the gales of modern life. But there’s gales and there’s Gaels.

To the latter, here we have two of the finest in their art. They are two voices of the British Isles, one from Ireland, the other from Scotland; one the long-reigning star in the Irish folk firmament, the other a rising light in the northern sky. One is Mary Black, the other Emily Smith.

In the case of Stories from the Steeples, Black has assembled a strong supporting cast from Down Under for her material. She covers The Night Was Dark and Deep (Paul Kelly, titled in his collection as They Thought I Was Asleep), Mountains to the Sea (Shane Howard and Neil Murray), All the Fine Young Men (Eric Bogle, John Munro) and One True Place (Neil Murray).

As much as Black is such a fine singer able to cross genres, she is also an insightful interpreter. The Night Was Dark and Deep — Kelly’s gem of a vignette of a young boy overhearing a strained conversation between his parents on a long car journey — is coloured with a sensitive empathy. It’s actually a trait of Black’s throughout her long career across traditional, pop, even jazz-inflected tunes: she is able to live the song. Some would call it soul.

To illustrate this masterful blending, Black duets with three wildly different singers: Imelda May, Finbar Furey and Janis Ian. And she brings in the family, recording songs by her son Danny O’Reilly.

Stories from the Steeples finds Black back in the best form of her career. Her voice is as strong and sensitive as ever, neither twee nor diddley-i. It’s a cathedral of sound, subdued and strong.

Stories from the Steeples
Mary Black
(3u Records/Planet)

Folking.com - by Mike Wilson

This is the first studio recording from Mary Black in six years, and it’s a collection that demonstrates an artist in full command of her bewitching vocal prowess. Throughout an impressive career, Mary has consistently demonstrated impeccable taste in her choice of material, and the evidence presented here suggests that her ear for seeking out songs of utmost grace and beauty is as keen as ever. With a voice that has only gained in depth and resonance over the years, Mary brings her trademark warmth and sincerity, casting light and shade amongst the lyrics to create her own personal space amongst the words of carefully chosen songwriters. Never one to rest on her laurels, we’re gifted songs from familiar friends such as Shane Howard, Eric Bogle and Julie Matthews, alongside burgeoning writing talents, including Danny O’Reilly and Ricky Lynch.

Sharing the stage with a number of guests, Stories From The Steeples contains three duets: the beguiling “Lighthouse Light” features Janis Ian in a perfectly balanced performance that whets the appetite for further exploration of this winsome partnership; the robust, soulful voice of Imelda May joins Mary on an affirmative song of place and belonging, “Mountains To The Sea”; and the playful “Walking With My Love” finds Mary exchanging lines with the legendary Finbar Furey. All three performances are notable for their palpable sense of modesty and mutual admiration.

Two stand-out tracks come from particularly close to home, being written by Mary’s son, Danny O’Reilly. “Faith In Fate” paints a stark contrast between the sheer despair of a broken relationship with a determined hopefulness to move on and patch things up. Managing to be simultaneously bleak and uplifting with its heady infusion of hurt and devoted affection, it’s a song that plays to all the strengths of Mary’s typically emotion-wrought interpretation. Offering a similar cocktail of emotions, “Wizard of Oz” is a mournful reflection on the search for strength and happiness, underpinned by a dreamy string arrangement over which Mary lays her heartwarming vocals.

Fulfilling the role of storyteller, Mary excels in bringing lifelike colour to the characters of “Marguerite And The Gambler,” a Ricky Lynch song that recounts the familiar tale of many a traditional folk ballad, with its gamblers, true love, misguided familial intervention, heartbreak and devastation. Those purchasing the extended version of the album are handsomely rewarded with an exquisite reading of Chris Woods’ “One In A Million,” a story of true love that takes the mundanities of life and turns it in to utter magic, and proving beyond any doubt that Mary remains a song’s best friend.

Paul Kelly’s “They Thought I Was Asleep” benefits from a tender reading, cloaked in Mary’s trademark warmth, depicting the torment of a child inadvertently witnessing from the back seat of a car, the emotional breakdown of his parents’ relationship. Equally devastating, though of more epic proportions, Eric Bogle’s “All the Fine Young Men” is made all the more disarming, thanks to the sheer reverence with which Mary furnishes this stark, anti-war anthem.

With a little less polish than some of her earlier releases, Stories From The Steeples steps forward as an intimate, unpretentious collection, bathed in a soft but radiant glow of effortlessness and wholehearted integrity. Time will tell, but Stories From The Steeples may well prove to be Mary’s best yet.

Hot Press, vol. 35, issue 22 - by Jackie Hayden: Assured Return By Irish Legend

With here first full studio outing in six years, Mary Black is back with an album on which she uncompromisingly showcases some of the most undeservedly unsung songwriters. The Coronas’ Danny O’Reilly, (coincidentally her son), leads the pack, supplying three classy tracks. ‘The Night Is On Our Side’ is very good while, buoyed by Black’s expressive vocal talents, ‘Faith In Fate’ is a true gem.

With the opener, the Dylanesque narrative ‘Marguerite And The Gambler’, Black introduces us to the songsmithing skills of Ricky Lynch: Finbar Furey joins her on the jaunty ‘Walkin’ With My Love’, creating a timeless duet that suggests they should do it again soon. Imelda May joins the fray on the upbeat ‘Mountains To The Sea’, a colourful evocation of the outdoors from Australians Shane Howard and Neil Murray. The indomitable Richie Buckley lays his trademark sax on ‘Faith In Fate’. Black and Janis Ian duet deliciously on the heart-stealing ‘Lighthouse Light’. And the album ends on a wistful note with Black’s Frenchified version of The Hollies’ ‘Fifi The Flea’.

Mary Black instinctively makes a song her own, and her voice here is more expressively fragile than before. The musicianship is impeccable, especially Bill Shanley’s guitar and Pat Crowley’s keyboards, making Stories From The Steeples a very worthy addition to an already impressive catalogue. Mary: back in the Black…

The Irish Times, The Ticket - by Siobhán Long

Stories define Mary Black’s latest collection, and quite a few have Antipodean roots: spare, sometimes parched, and shot through with an intimacy that lures the listener into the beating heart of the song. Danny O’Reilly of The Coronas contributes three of the best tracks, with The Wizard of Oz a standout: a story of heartbreak and tentative renewal celebrating the best of Black’s interpretive skills against a spartan backdrop of piano, cello, violin and double bass. Guest vocalists include Janis Ian, Imelda May and Finbar Furey; their disparate styles at one with Black’s. Paul Kelly’s The Night Was Dark and Deep is neatly reinvented, and Black’s three offspring get a peep-in on O’Reilly’s radio-friendly The Night Is on Our Side. Shades of Mary Chapin Carpenter colour this collection, whose main surprises are found lurking in the songwriting.

MOJO magazine four star review in their March 2012 issue

The award-winning Irish singer's first album of new material in six years. It's all about the songs - each handpicked and worthy of Black's interpretative touch. Material like All The Fine Young Men, an anti-war anthem by the great Eric Bogle, and Marguerite And The Gambler, a song by Cork's Ricky Lynch that takes its inspiration from The Falconer, a painting displayed in a Cork Art gallery. Then there's the totally melodic Wizard Of Oz, one of three compositions donated by young songwriter Danny O'Reilly, that could easily become a standard. Add such guest-assisted goodies as Walking With My Love, which boasts the talents of Finbar Furey, along with Mountains To The Sea (with Imelda May) and Lighthouse Light (with Janis Ian), wrap the whole in a production that appeals both to a commercial audience and one that favours a more traditional approach, and Black has achieved the perfect meld.

Fred Dallar, MOJO Magazine, March 2012

Several more reviews of Stories from the Steeples are appearing.

Here are links to some of those reviews: