When discussing female singer/songwriters, particularly those from Canada, the conversation will inevitably lead to Joni Mitchell. Despite her voice’s two octave Nicotine drop and her puzzling Bob Dylan criticisms, Mitchell is a living legend whose forty-year career stands as a model to scores of talented women who have fallen under the spell of her abilities. The Mitchell school was most popular in the Seventies, but every now and then, someone will come along that jumps between musical styles while retaining a sort of existential loneliness that is perfectly expressed by a heavenly, versatile voice. Enter Montreal-based Molly Sweeney, stage right.
Sweeney channels Mitchell in the best way possible. On her debut album, Gold Rings and Fur Pelts, Sweeney puts her own personal songwriter stamp on the songs while singing with the sort of inexplicably fragile strength that Mitchell captured on albums like Blue and The Hissing of the Summer Lawns. Gold Rings launches with “Swollen,” a country-tinged song about weariness and disillusionment. Sweeney sings with brutal honesty about how she will “[S]tep on their feelings so that I can feel good.” Throughout the album, the way Sweeney delicately moves between her head voice and chest voice is stunning; “Swollen” being just the tip. Specifically, the way she caresses the lyric, “Well the present’s for selling/And the past is for dwelling/And the future’s like fire/First the smoke starts a-swelling.”
Sweeney transforms her Joni Mitchell into a Stevie Nicks alto with “Faithfull” (which pays homage for another female singer, Marianne Faithfull). “Faithfull” is an album highlight, with understated mandolin and an earnest melody. In “Florida,” Sweeney says she belongs in Florida–hardly a Mecca for indie musicians, but appealing to all of us northerners in the winter months. “Gold Rings and Fur Pelts” is built on an unexpected tango melody and showcases Sweeney’s French speaking ability, practically a civic duty for every Montreal artist.
“Full Moon” returns to the folk stylings of the first track. At this point, the gloomy atmosphere of the album becomes apparent, despite the inherent beauty of Sweeney’s voice. “Full Moon” ends with, “I first sang this tune through a cascade of tears/’Cause I knew it was time for me to disappear.” “Eros and Psyche” is a haunting accordion tapestry based on the Greek myth about the disappearance of a mysterious lover while “You Mustn’t Worry” continues the mythological plot-line. The album ends on a particularly dark note, with dirges “Spirit, Will I See You” and “Radiant Sun,” cleverly relating back to “Full Moon” and “Florida.” On the album’s closing track, Sweeney appeals to the God-like sun, “And if I ever end up just like Marie Curie/Well I’ll never blame you for what happens to me.”
So many artists use the singer/songwriter mold, it’s rare to see someone’s music initially cut out of such marvelous clay, and turn out such a rewarding, non-imitative result. For a debut album, Sweeney has outdone herself. Her songwriting isn’t yet the stuff of genius but it’s consistently compelling, and with her pristine voice, there is a deep well of potential.