If you’ve read the contemporary “real world” mythic fantasy works of Charles de Lint, you know he has a knack for creating believable characters that seem just a little too real, and stories that exist somewhere in the twilight land between wish fulfillment and nightmare, between the all-too-familiar and the too-long-wished for. You also know that his tales are absolutely thick with music—his prose is lyrical and poetic, and more than a few of his plots revolve around songs or tunes, lush and dripping with gritty urban enchantment. Many of his characters are themselves musicians, and even the ones who aren’t will mention a favorite artist, concert, or recording now and then.
But of you haven’t had a chance to hear Charles de Lint perform live with his wife, the artist MaryAnn Harris, you’re only getting half the story. Up until now, that meant you had to be lucky enough to catch the couple at a fantasy convention or book festival, or make the trek to Ottawa to hear them at a quaint pub like Paddy’s. If you’ve had the experience, you know what a treat it is. The music carries echoes of Celtic, roots, folk, rock, blues, and … whatever the heck it is that artists like Fred Eaglesmith, David Franklin, and Tom Waits sing. I’ve heard it called urban country, which is certainly an evocative label, except that it really doesn’t tell you anything unless you already know what it sounds like.
Happily, the couple has finally found the time to record and release a pair of CDs. And better still, while the tunes are dressed up in their Sunday best, they don’t have that slick, over-produced quality that drives the life out of far too many first time recordings. Old Blue Truck and Crow Girls captures all heart and energy of their live performances.
MaryAnn Harris’ Crow Girls is the shorter of the two with only five tracks. Her voice is bouncy and energetic, and offers far more range—I mean that more in terms of style and emotion than vocal range—than you’d expect if you’d just heard her singing back up on Old Blue Truck. Her voice is gentle and melodic, of course, but you’re kind of expecting that. So much so that the more raucous, more rascally edge kind of sneaks up on you.
The title track, Crow Girls, is taken from two of the more memorable characters in Charles de Lint’s Newford stories, and it’s just as fun and lively as you’d expect if you’ve encountered them in the tales. It has its own strange logic, and it continues to defy your expectations, even when played again. Another favorite is In A heartbeat, a more overtly roots tune about a long love that does more than endure—it keeps its magic alive. All in all, it’s a lovely gem of an EP, and MaryAnn Harris’s voice and mandolin blend perfectly with the guitar and fiddle that accompany her.
MaryAnn Harris’s voice is much, well, smokier in her backup vocals on Charles de Lint’s Old Blue Truck. Charles de Lint’s voice has the throaty growl of a smoother Tom Waits or a rougher Lou Reed, and it’s perfect for the CD’s ten tracks, all off which just shine with de Lint’s talents both as a musician and as a storyteller. To my ear at least, Great Big Moon is the strongest track on a strong CD. If you’re listening with headphones or earbuds, be prepared to explain to anyone who might pass that you’ve got something in you eye. If you’re playing it through speakers, well, you won’t have to explain why you’re wiping away a tear. It’s a quiet and introspective piece about the harder edges of romance, and de Lint’s rough but smooth (think of the best whiskeys and you’ll know what I mean) voice gives it power and poignance.
The rest of the tunes are equally strong, although Cherokee Girl and Medicine Road deserve special mention. All feature strong guitar lines, solid vocals, and evocative lyrics. I hope both CDs will find the wide audiences they deserve. The couple deserves to have their reputation spread beyond a few pubs and festivals. If you’re about to hear them for the first time, trust me. You’re in for a treat.