From Joni Mitchell to the McGarrigles, Sarah McLachlan to kd lang, Canada has produced a significant number of accomplished and influential female singer-songwriters. Mitchell is the undisputed foremother, of course, setting the bar almost ludicrously high in terms of innovation, musicianship and lyrical dexterity. But the artists who have followed in her wake have also made their own distinctive contributions to Canada’s musical mosaic. Though extremely diverse and individual, their work is characterised by emotional fearlessness, a willingness to experiment and an often breathtaking ability to fuse elements of pop, folk, rock and jazz in creative ways — sometimes in the space of a single song.
Jane Siberry is one such artist. Blessed with a playful sense of humour, a protean voice that can both soar and confide, and the ability to turn a song about a missing cow into an aching expression of loss, she has a devoted following in Canada and elsewhere. In the UK, however, she has seldom received the recognition she richly deserves. In recent years, her decision to release new material only through her own Sheeba label has not helped to raise her profile, and when kd lang covered two of her songs on her 2004 covers album of classic Canadian songcraft, Hymns Of The 49th Parallel, British listeners could perhaps have been forgiven for asking “Jane who”?
For the uninitiated, then, this 2-disc, 30-track retrospective (first released in 2002) serves as the perfect introduction to an idiosyncratic and endlessly rewarding body of work. Drawn mainly from Siberry’s early 1980s folk-based releases, her experimental No Borders Here, The Speckless Sky and The Walking trilogy, 1989′s Bound By The Beauty and 1993′s When I Was A Boy, the choice of material on the first disc could not be bettered. Given the extraordinary level of quality control, it’s almost churlish to pick favourites, but the inviting piano ballad ‘In The Blue Light’, the spry ‘Red High Heels’, the unearthly ‘The Walking (& Constantly)’, the hymnal ‘The Lobby’ and the rapt ‘Bound By The Beauty’ are all particularly captivating expressions of Siberry’s unique gifts. The disc also gives a clear sense of her creative development, from her spare apprentice material to her exhilarating experiments with studio trickery throughout the 1980s.
This is not to suggest that the compilation follows a slavishly chronological path through Siberry’s work, however. Instead, several thematically connected songs from different periods are linked together to form mini cycles and suites. Thus, ‘Bessie’ (from her 1996 album, Teenager) is paired with its 1981 ‘prequel’ ‘The Mystery At Ogwen’s Farm’ to tell the tale of a flying bovine from two contrasting perspectives. Placed side by side, the songs sound especially striking, the former a buoyant acoustic strum full of Chagall-esque imagery, the latter an exquisite lament in which the narrator of ‘Bessie’ features as a mere bit player. The same trick occurs on the second disc, whereupon Siberry’s classic ‘Mimi On The Beach’ is followed by the live recording ‘Mimi Speaks’, a cheeky spoken-word piece in which the objectified title character is finally given the chance to “have [her] say”.
Such thoughtful sequencing reveals Siberry’s heartening commitment to the fullest possible development of her stories and characters, and is a valuable feature of this compilation. Siberry trades immaculate harmonies with lang on ‘Calling All Angels’, one of her best-loved songs and also one of her most beautiful, pitched in some galaxy midway between despair and consolation. Yet Siberry does not fear bold exuberance; ‘The Life Is The Red Wagon’ is a dose of happiness, its “you pull for me… I pull for you” refrain serving as the ultimate antidepressant.
The second disc is patchier and gives the impression that Siberry’s work has become somewhat less compelling in recent years. There are, of course, some heavenly moments; the sublime, minutely-detailed pop of ‘Mimi’ and the skewed piano ballads ‘Goodnight Sweet Pumpkinhead’ and ‘Barkis Is Willin’. However, the bizarre ‘Peony’ is a piece of woeful, substandard experimenta, and the best that can be said of her treatments of traditional material such as ‘All Through The Night’ and ‘The Water Is Wide’ is that they’re pretty. But ‘pretty’ feels like a considerable letdown after her complex and daring earlier work, and there are times when these songs veer perilously close to schmaltz. It’s left to her closing cycle of ‘Map Of The World’ tracks — presented together in sequence for the first time here with a new (and not very satisfying) ‘Part IV’ — to regain some of the lost momentum.
Siberry shares with Kate Bush an ability to combine unconventional lyrical subject matter with intricate, densely layered yet accessible melodies and arrangements. The work of both also expresses an unabashed femininity and an emotional openness that can sound surprisingly close to toughness. The relative paucity of rarities or new material on this collection means that it has less to offer long-time devotees of Siberry’s music. But Rhino have done a typically impeccable job on it, and it will undoubtedly inspire those new to her work, and leave them eager to hear more.
[Warner Bros./Rhino; February 20, 2006]