Music Review: Loreena McKennitt – Nights from the Alhambra

I first discovered Loreena McKennitt around fifteen years ago, about the time she was getting pop station airplay with her pop-ified version of “Mummers Dance”. I’ve bought a few of her albums through the years, but not as many as I would have liked. Her celtic and world music is simply wonderful, and though I know it’s being popularized, I still feel like I’m learning a little about the music of different cultures in the process.

She’s a very talented woman. In addition to her voice, she plays harp, piano, accordian, and who knows what all else. She composes many of her songs, and arranges the others. He liner notes are usually interesting and enlightening. One gets the impression that her music to her is both serious business and entirely for the fun of it.

I discovered “Nights from the Alhambra” when I found it at the library. It’s essentially a live concert album, produced in cooperation with PBS, if I recall correctly. I don’t think there is any new material on the album–it’s primarily a “greatest hits” collection from her numerous albums. Most of them I’ve heard before. But the live verve adds something extra. Not all of the songs are improved by being live, but many are. “Caravanserai” takes on an earnestness and drive that was missing in the original album version. “Huron ‘Beltane’ Fire Dance” becomes a fun jam session.

Some songs, like “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Bonny Swans” get shortened a bit from their album recordings, which is not entirely a bad thing. Most of the other songs are fairly close, with perhaps some changes to the instrumentation, some alterations to the licks, and so on. It’s live, and they go with the moment.

What I love most about Loreena McKennitt is, oddly enough, just the opposite of what I love about Nolwenn Leroy. McKennitt’s voice doesn’t have much variation, but I don’t tired of it. What she has is expressiveness. The endows the lyrics with meaning. Her voice is strong, pleasant, and lilting. Her love of the music comes through–she wants you to love it as much as she does.

I also love the variety of music she explores. Her music covers the globe and borrows deeply from a myriad of rich cultural traditions. She draws lyrics from poetry, and inspiration from personal experiences in those regions, musical heritage, literature, art, sculpture, architecture, and even her own life.

“Nights from the Alhambra” is a great starting point, a sampler of her myriad moods and styles. As soon as I heard it I knew I would have to own my own copy. The set I bought comes with two CDs and a DVD of the concert, which is also interesting to watch. Extra points to anyone who can identify every instrument played. Many of them are authentic to the original cultures she draws from, and yet she fits them seamlessly into a variety of styles. I would have loved to have been there live.

Not all of her albums speak to me, but this one does. This is one set of music I will never regret adding to my collection.

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