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Brigid Mae Power - Head Above the Water Music Album Reviews

The Irish folk singer’s third album fills out her sound to incorporate elements of jazz, country rock, slowcore, and psychedelia.

Brigid Mae Power’s music never quite settles on solid ground. The Irish singer-songwriter flits between past and present; between traditional and modern forms; between the heaven in her voice and the earthbound epiphanies of her words. Her last album was called The Two Worlds. I’d say she inhabits a few more than that.
Power emerged from Galway’s bohemian scene, experimenting with the parameters of traditional music in unlit car parks and remote churches. Until now, the echo of open spaces has been a defining feature of her music, her intimate songs bolstered by cavernous reverb and drone. Those textures are less prominent on her third album. Recorded in Glasgow in three days with a band assembled by Scottish contemporary folkie Alasdair Roberts, who co-produced alongside Power and her husband Peter Broderick, Head Above the Water fills out her sound with a broader sweep of instrumentation. There is room for the bodhran, fiddle, and bouzouki, but also the synthesizer, Shruti box, drums, and electric guitar. Roberts encourages a more adventurous spirit to enter the proceedings. Though still rooted in folk—there’s a stunning cover of the traditional ballad “The Blacksmith”—the 10 songs blend elements of jazz, country rock, slowcore, and psychedelia.
Occasionally, the music has real bite, as on the snaking, sinister “I Was Named After You.” More typically, the songs amble dreamily toward their destination, as though following an ancient map on which the coordinates have begun to fade. On “Wedding of a Friend” and “You Have a Quiet Power,” buffeted by cross breezes of pedal steel and Mellotron, Power sounds like she’s fronting a slightly woollier Mazzy Star. “On a City Night” recalls the giddy joie de vivre of some of the lighter moments on Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes.

What remains from past albums is the plain beauty of Power’s voice, part of a lineage that includes Anne Briggs, Linda Perhacs, and Beth Orton. It seems otherworldly until you listen to the words. Head Above the Water is, she says, “a continuing tale of everyday survival.” The lyrics merge the poetic and prosaic, recounting past conversations, recalling locations, journeys, small moments, until the whole assumes a cumulative weight.

In “Wedding of a Friend,” a baby’s head lies on her chest, “stuck with sweat.” In “On a City Night,” a quotidian conversation regarding the merits of city vs. country begets a sly love song about giving up things you cherish for the person you want to be with. In “Wearing Red That Eve,” the color of a dress denotes an elemental strength. As the song unfolds lazily over a soulful three-chord pattern, Power rises above the yelled profanities of a group of men on a New York street and ascends to the mountains, where she professes love “for everything and everyone.”

On many of these songs, she tells her story and then breaks into a series of wordless cries which carry their own meaning. Mostly, it sounds like joy. While previously Power seemed to be swimming against a tide of bad luck—she has spoken about her struggles as a single mother and past abusive relationships—there’s an air of breakthrough here, articulated most clearly on “I Was Named After You”: “I was in a battle I could neither win or lose, but time has passed and I can freely move.”

There are some obvious flaws. The uniformity of mood, melody, and texture means the album can drag, and while the spontaneity of the recordings is largely vindicated by the results, it also leaves some loose threads dangling. “Not Yours to Own” isn’t alone in meandering prettily without seeming to care too much about where it’s headed; a more attentive working process might have developed things further. At her best, however, Power lives up to her name. The closing title track, with its glassy beauty, twinkling piano, and soft strings, speaks to her continued progress. An artist at swim, head above the water, “looking across to the shore.”



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