Mon pays, c'est l'hiver. Even in France, those words don't have the same meaning they're freighted with in Quebec, or in any part of Canada where the inhabitants have a deep and intimate acquaintance with long snowy winters.
Kate Bush lives in southwestern England, not known for its snowstorms. But mundane personal experience has never been a big subject for Bush, who prefers situations where her imagination can run without stumbling over too much imposed reality. And why not? Shakespeare had no first-hand knowledge of Venice, Kafka never travelled to America and Jules Verne did not visit the moon.
Someone else in her shoes might have made the snow and ice a backdrop for romantic scenarios that could work as well in a desert or the Lake District. Bush prefers to engage with the stuff itself. These seven long tracks include a dialogue with a falling snowflake, an address to a yeti and a one-night stand with a snowman. "And when I kiss his ice cream lips and his creamy skin," Bush sings in Misty, "his snowy white arms surround me."
Yeah, it looks ludicrous on the page, even more than Frosty's sprint around town, and the cover image of the kiss doesn't help. But Bush isn't playing for laughs. She's going for the big dead-of-night realization, that comes when the world's asleep and everything that's lost can return in imagination, close but unreachable. The imagery in Misty is very specific, but the man isn't; he could be snow, or flesh, just another guy who can only exist by staying cool to everything around him. Bush's music emulates a jazz piano trio at 3 a.m., without the jazz. It's reflective and spacious – the track runs over 13 minutes – and severely unflamboyant. A few recurring cadences on her piano might have been imported from Arvo Part's austere religious music.
Most of the album has a hushed, night-world feeling to it. Snowflake's seething piano sequences are played close, over soft drum beats; Bush sings quietly, sometimes ducking into speech. "The world is so loud," she sings in the chorus. "Keep falling" – a plea for the kind of silence that comes when a city is thickly blanketed in snow. From up on high, a boy soprano (her son Albert) fixes an imaginary point at which water meets cold and forms a flake.
Lake Tahoe features two high male voices in tight, dissonant counterpoint, as if Bush were channelling Benjamin Britten, a great fancier of androgynous high voices. Her grand piano leads this one, musing over its serial syncopations with a soft penumbra of strings. Wild Man, the yeti song, takes a bit of swing in its gait, and a synthesizer sound not far from what she used in the eighties. Bush delivers the verses in a Dylan-like style, like melodicized speech.
The title track hustles along under a spoken list of the 50 words (which include "whippoccino" and "Zhivagodamarbletash") delivered by actor Stephen Fry. Elton John appears for Snowed in at Wheeler Street, a grandiose duet in which Bush, goaded perhaps by the presence of another famously pushy singer, finally sings out in her full voice. But her characteristic soprano yowl is hardly evident on this disc.
To really like 50 Words for Snow, you've got to be keen on records that just simmer along, and that build a case through time and repetition. I find Bush's repeated piano tunelets weak fuel for a song of eight or nine minutes, but I respect what she does otherwise, the guts and the focus and – sometimes – the lean beauty of it.
50 Words for Snow
- Kate Bush
- Fish People/Universal
OTHER NEW RELEASES
- Keith Jarrett
- Three and a half stars
Don't be misled by the dense, modernist harmonies that Jarrett plays with at the beginning of this live disc. Instead of working through the dissonances, focus instead on the rhythms animating them, and you'll have a better sense of the energy flowing through the improvisations here. This show, recorded in Rio de Janeiro last April, marks the 40th anniversary of Jarrett's solo piano recordings, and offers the full range of his pianistic vocabulary, from gorgeously lyrical meditations to joyous, gospel-inflected ostinatos. But it's the rhythmic insistence of his playing that looms largest, energizing these 15 spontaneous compositions and bringing fresh vitality to a now-familiar format. J.D. Considine
FOLK/POP: I Love You, Go Easy
- Devon Sproule
- Tin Angel/Arts & Crafts
- Four stars
"I'll work a while in music till my money runs out," sings Devon Sproule, conceding that her kind of songs – smart, funny, profound – aren't going to push Rihanna off the radio. Sproule, a Canadian-born singer who lives in Virginia, has a homespun way of singing, and a folkish tone at times, but her lyrics and musical material are very sophisticated. The harmonic language sometimes nudges towards a brainy kind of jazz, especially in The Faulty Body. Sproule has a knack for seeing the oddity of things when rendered life-size, and for haunting homely imagery: In the chorus of The Warning Bell, for instance, she vows to unhitch her body from the bell's clapper. There's also a fine understated cover of Mary Margaret O'Hara's Body in Trouble, on a disc sensitively produced by another Toronto musician, Sandro Perri. Robert Everett-Green
Devon Sproule plays Toronto's Tranzac Club on Sunday.
- Meshell Ndegeocello
- Three and a half stars
"Take a chance," advises Meshell Ndegeocello, "if not for love, then I have to refuse it." Ndegeocello is an all-in woman, the phrase "half-hearted" foreign to her. On her soulful ninth studio album, the great American singer is in immersive, embracing and candle-lit form. She's helped by the producer Joe Henry, who paints with thick brushes and rich autumnal hues. A Bitter Mule is profoundly blue, its passion being in the intense manner of Chris Whitley and with a piano motif just off-kilter. Crazy and Wild, a sultry, languid intercourse, has Ndegeocello and a sensual male singer in deep eye-lock. And if that isn't Cohenesque enough, a pair checks languidly into Chelsea Hotel, where a bed is unmade and the legend of Ndegeocello's heart is lengthened. Sublime, all told. Brad Wheeler
CLASSICAL: Bela Bartok: Violin Concertos, Nos. 1 and 2; Viola Concerto
- James Ehnes, violin and viola
- BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda
- Three and a half stars
The formidable Canadian violinist James Ehnes not only plays Bartok's two violin concertos here – often paired on disc – but his (unfinished) viola concerto as well. Ehnes's reading of the first concerto, which was composed early in Bartok's career, catches its wistfulness, its mercurial mood changes and – in places – an almost film-score romanticism. Only the magical slow movement from the second concerto doesn't quite get off the page in this recording: One longs for more delectable sound from the orchestra and for suppler rhythms from Ehnes. He's remarkably stingy with rubato, considering how much rhythmic freedom Bartok took as a pianist. On the other hand, Ehnes's lines are spectacularly lithe and lyrical in even the most daunting passagework. There's no empty virtuosity here. Elissa Poole