63-year old Canadian Penny Lang has a long history in folk, never a kleig-light name but well regarded by such notables as Jesse Winchester, and she's been a staple in many places, playing, for instance, for Newfoundland fishermen, then off to Europe or Australia to tour, doing so for forty years. A documentary was made about her in 1999 (Stand Up: On High Ground with Penny Lang, by Jocelyne Clarke), and, in 2003, she received the first amusingly titled Prix Folqui awarded by equally clever FolQuebec. Thus, she's pretty well-known in her country, and this is her 8th release, issued six years after suffering a stroke.
Stone is gathering accolades for its lush beauty, and the applause comes under no onus of exaggeration. The disc is not orchestrally fulsome but rather marvelously crafted under the direction of producer Roma Baran (aided by Vivian Stoll), who treated it like it was a movie, she a director, and Lang an esteemed star worthy of Shakespearean treatment. You'll have to visit the label site to catch the full story but it's quite unusual, an application of technical finesse to fit a vision producers don't often cultivate.
The result is a mixture of sensitivity, mellifluity, and wistfulness. Lang's voice isn't always 100% on the mark, but her carefully restrained emotionalism makes up for the flaws, and the backing band is exquisite—with no charts, making it all the more surprising. The best moments are the duetted and harmony group vocals; on the other hand, Diamonds on the Water shows Lang in full command, not with the booming presence she once could boast—that might never occur again—but melodic, inflected, and quite knowledgeable as to how a tune should be approached and fleshed.
High Muddy Waters most delineates what an influence Baran has been on this release. It's a brilliant mixture of folk, chamber, and avant-garde, the last of which is only very rarely attempted in this genre. Its unique timbre resides in a strange but compelling engineering mix, not to mention the unusually abstract thought lavished, a matter of hybridizing envelopes while pushing them. It's not the only cut with such elements, and the listener can detect any number far more softly laid, rendering quietly striking tangs and flavors, but it is indeed almost singular as an entry in the folk canon.
Ah, but there's more. Baran, a multi-instrumentalist, wields a wickedly affecting fuzzed-out slide on Dylan's One Too Many Mornings, again dragging in elements requiring great skill and discernment to apply correctly, tremendously contrasting Lang's vocals and acoustic playing, injecting airs of high drama before returning to the more subdued matrix. In fact, this is, one begins to understand, as much Baran's CD as Langs', but it took Lang to provoke it.
In determining the latter's genesis and influences, one also perceives that Lang is somewhat the lone wolf, perhaps a good deal more than that, given references in her bio, the earthy side of Joni Mitchell cast in jade and granite, softened and carved by rains over many years. It would be fair, I think, to say that she created herself, perhaps not so radically as a Tim Hardin but certainly owing no clear-cut allegiance to very many antecedents. Such individualists are not easy to find and always require a long acclimation process (explaining why Nick Drake and Hardin are now far more popular "long" after their deaths). But Lang is not unwilling to make concessions to tradition, as Room to Move trots out a Peggy Lee-ish moment atypical of her main repertoire, a glass of wine to the side of the banquet.
This CD has much to invite the listener. It mixes folk with airy jazz, occasional Americana, rock's mellower side, and a maverick combination of many elements. It's also as unique as a Van Morrison LP...naturally not for that gent's rougher voice but for the unusual approach he inevitably takes on each and every outing, an artistic prerogative here firmly melded by Lang, with the feminine touch
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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