MARY FAHL – Can’t Get It Out Of My Head

Mary Fahl first came to prominence as a member of October Project in the 1990s, but it was only after moving on and exploring solo ventures that the American vocalist began to reach her full potential. Despite not being the most prolific, her releases have been rich and sometimes quite varied. Clinging on to a folk core, and blending that with an easy listening vocal, Fahl’s best songs have ploughed a very adult MOR furrow, but those paying closer attention will spot a broad range of influences. For example, ‘Annie Roll Down Your Window’ shows an affinity for Indigo Girls, an almost Neil Finn-like pop element drives the folk rock sound of ‘Raging Child’, and much later on, ‘How Much Love’ conveys the dark heart of Tracy Chapman set against the sparseness of Daniel Lanois.

For those who’ve not yet investigated the Mary Fahl catalogue, her 2022 release ‘Can’t Get It Out of My Head’, in many ways, provides the most accessible entry point. On this, her fifth studio album, she reworks various famous songs in her own image. The covers album can be an easy stop gap; sometimes, it’s even an obvious contractual filler. However, there’s little here that suggests that’s the case for Fahl as she applies the same warmth and perfection that’s now expected of her own work. Just as impressive are the choices she’s made; in the main, her tastes are of an adult singer-songwriter persuasion with everything sourced from the 60s and 70s, but her reinterpretations are such that it’s easy to appreciate the sheer timelessness of the songs in hand.

The title cut comes Mary’s way courtesy of Electric Light Orchestra, and she takes the mid tempo ballad and pulls just about every ounce of emotion possible from its slow vocal, delivered at high volume. That’s understandable since it’s Mary’s album, and her contralto voice is undoubtedly the star, but years after hearing everyone’s favourite curlyheaded Brummie filtered and layered beyond belief, it’s a little jarring. Given time to adjust, the stripped down semi-acoustic reworking is lovely. The synth-esque strings, less so; however, given how synthetic some of the ELO material now sounds, it’s likely this was a deliberate move, of course, and they never detract from Fahl’s sense of emotion or her power as a performer. Other than scaling things down a little, no other changes are made, but then, when armed with a great song, there’s little point in trying to be too clever. Another marvellous tune, Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’ eschews the original’s lush strings in favour of some acoustic guitar and piano. This seems hesitantly applied at first, but gradually swells as the tune gains momentum. The warmth of the strings is also replaced by an extra focus on a haunting melody, which Fahl manages to pitch somewhere between a Carly Simon ballad and one of Annie Haslam’s beautiful flights of fancy. Lovers of the original cut will find plenty to enjoy here – in lots of ways, it’s the album’s strongest offering and main selling point, and proof that Drake’s songs retain a genuine quality, no matter whom the messenger.

Many have covered the Stones’ ‘Ruby Tuesday’ before, so it could seem like an uninspired choice for this album, but there’s plenty in the way Mary taps into a soaring vocal that gives it life. The arrangement is unchanged, with everything hinging upon a great piano part, but the more modern production brings out a brightness that’s very welcome, and a massive vocal suggests a power and sadness all at once. Granted, there’s better material here – and certainly more inspired arrangements to be uncovered by the listener – but this is still preferable to Melanie’s particularly squawky rendition from 1970. Those interested in hearing Fahl’s voice at its most pure should head straight for ‘Since You’ve Asked’, an old Judy Collins number that appears to have been transformed into something akin to a Renaissance interlude. Atop a strong waltzing rhythm and grandiose melody, the vocal really stretches a fantastic tune in a way that demonstrates the ease in which the performer can apply her talent. Every line is huge and rich, though without self-importance, and that, combined with a musical backdrop where a perfect acoustic guitar shares a lilting sound against strings and a warm bass, provides an album highlight.

Back in 2011, Mary re-imagined the whole of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ and released it as a studio recording of her own, so it’s only natural that the Floyd would get another look in here. She could have chosen something left field like the reflective ‘If’, or the beautifully pastoral ‘Grantchester Meadows’ and done either justice, but instead, she’s played rather safely with the populist ‘Comfortably Numb’. In terms of tempo, it plays exactly as you’d expect, but tonally, it sounds far more like something from the Justin Hayward back catalogue. Perhaps its the hard drum sound colliding with a synthetic sounding backdrop that calls to mind classic Jeff Wayne; perhaps it’s the MOR sheen to the vocal, but whatever it is, it’s not hard to imagine this being followed with ‘Forever Autumn’ or ‘Nights In White Satin’. Mary, meanwhile, does her best to reinterpret the vocal melody as if it were written for her. With an occasional wobble and bleat, she makes it so much bigger – not necessarily better, but certainly bigger – and when reaching the inevitable climax, she sounds about as comfortable as on her own more easy listening material.

Quite often when musicians cover Richard & Linda Thompson, it’s the undeniable classics ‘When I Get To The Border’, ‘Wall of Death’ and ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ that get first refusal. Fahl digs slightly deeper to cover the brilliant ‘The Great Valerio’. One of the duo’s darkest songs, this version doesn’t shy away from its more ominous qualities, playing up a sparse keyboard line played in a dark manner against a mechanised beat, whilst clean and echoing guitar sounds accentuate a very haunting feel. As with the Nick Drake cut, though, it’s often all about the voice, and the way Fahl stretches her wavering tones with strength over something that somehow seems to marry a trip hop-ish beat with dark folk overtones results in a standout performance. By the end of the second chorus, you might even believe it had been written for her, and by the time a minimalist coda mixes the beats with an almost carny-like melody, it’s almost possible you won’t hear the original in quite the same way again.

Elsewhere, The Moody Blues’ ‘Tuesday Afternoon’ is served straight, but sounds like a reasonable slice of old style pop with swelling orchestral elements. Given how much enthusiasm Fahl applies to her vocal, a shame that so many synths are employed as a cheap alternative to a full string section, but that doesn’t keep a good song down, and The Mamas & The Papas ‘I’ve Got A Feelin’’ allows for some great harmonies via the gift of a multi-tracked vocal. As with the Moodies number, there’s the heart of something nice here, thanks to some superb source material, but it comes with a nagging feeling that a warmer and more lavish production would’ve suited the recording much better. Even so, it’s very hard to find fault with Ms. Fahl’s performance as she approaches each line with a stately professionalism.

Much better, George Harrison’s classic ‘Beware of Darkness’ blends fingerpicked guitar lines drenched in reverb with a pure vocal where Mary’s contralto tones fall somewhere between a louder Linda Thompson and Annie Haslam. George’s melodies hold firm, but it’s nice to hear a bigger divide between the arrangement’s peaks and troughs. In this case, the rockier moments underscored by drums appear to have a real punch, which works brilliantly by the time the final verses are reached, with the vocal really sounding like an ominous warning. Opting for something much easier, Neil Young’s ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ fleshes out this enjoyable collection with a rendition that never aims to surprise, and yet still pulls at the heartstrings thanks to a perfect vocal (which, obviously Ol’ Lambchops could never claim he’d been aiming for back in 1970), some terrific string flourishes, a grubby lead guitar break and a hard rhythm that appears to push the voice ever forward with a sense of moodiness. In some ways, it’s hard to beat the Seal version in terms of a great cover, but for some, this’ll certainly become a favourite.

Having spotted material supplied by ELO, Pink Floyd, and The Moody Blues in the song selections before even bitting play, listeners really shouldn’t approach this album expecting too much of a light prog or pomp-ish undertone. Aside from very occasionally wandering into an Annie Haslam territory, this is far more of an MOR/easily listening affair that happens to be constructed from some top notch source material. If accepted as such, there’s a lot to enjoy: the songs – obviously – are from a flawless stock; Mary’s voice is huge and rich without being overbearing, and the bulk of the package is professionally sound. It’s for her already supportive audience it’ll undoubtedly play out best – here, they’re afforded another collection of material showcasing a huge voice, almost effortless in its approach – but for lovers of the original material, this album should still provide some interesting variations on some old favourites.

June 2022

2 thoughts on “MARY FAHL – Can’t Get It Out Of My Head

  1. Greetings!
    Just want to clarify, for anyone reading this, that all strings on this album are real. A violin quartet, viola, and cello. Recorded at Subcat Studios, by Ron Keck. Arranged and conducted by Mark Doyle. (Much of this information is available in the liner notes.)
    Some tracks also feature some synths pads, for mood and texture, but I find the strings arrangements to be plenty distinct from these.
    Happy listening, everyone!
    ~ Mike
    Life in Surround

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