Mary Black Stretches Back Three Decades on ‘Orchestrated’

Mary Black | Orchestrated | (3 u Records)

Videos by American Songwriter

4 out of 5 stars

First, a quick introduction. Mary Black is one of Ireland’s most revered singers. Although her two earlier albums, By the Time It Gets Dark and No Frontiers, gave her some headway in the U.S., it was her prominent role on the compilation album A Woman’s Heart, that elevated her stature internationally. And for good reason— her shimmering, soaring performance on the title track made — and still makes — an indelible impression. Her voice connects with a clarity and passion that’s profoundly affecting and remarkably compelling regardless of tone or tapestry.

Orchestrated is, as its title describes, a set of songs that effectively represent a catalog that stretches back some 30 years to the start of her solo career following her departure from the Irish folk group De Dannan. Here too, that traditional template remains intact, courtesy of an array of backing musicians — among them longtime producer and collaborator Declan Sinnott — who give the basic backing tracks the supple support these songs demand.

The addition of orchestra, on the other hand, proves to be a mixed blessing.  On occasions there are certain selections — “No Frontiers” and “Poison Tree” in particular — where the strings tend to be rather overwhelming and threaten to drown out the subtleties inherent in these crystalline melodies. “Summer Sent You” and “Bless the Road,” on the other hand, benefit from the delicate designs arranger, conductor and producer Brian Byrne employs on these tracks on each of these individual offerings. The results are manifest in the lithe and uplifting performances that personify Black at her best.

The two efforts that will likely be best known to the novice even at the outset will likely be found in the form of Black’s tender read of Richard Thompson’s “The Dimming of the Day,” which finds singer and orchestra giving a spectral performance that takes the drama and desire to even greater heights. Of course the song is spellbinding to begin with, but here it sounds like an excerpt from an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical… only in a good way of course.

The other entry that weighs on the familiarity factor is the album opener, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s seminal “Urge for Going,” later famously covered by Tom Rush. The broad sweep of the arrangement tends to drown out the melody almost to the point where it almost becomes secondary to the overall designs. Byrne is clearly a conductor with a flourish, and the added drama is a decided additive throughout.

Still, any opportunity to reintroduce Black to a wider audience is reason enough to appreciate Orchestrated alone. It provides her with a renewed introduction, one that’s very well deserved. An excellent compendium, it signals the fact that Black is back, even with strings attached.

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