wears the trousers magazine

ellen mary mcgee: the crescent sun (2009)
July 7, 2009, 9:18 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , ,


Ellen Mary McGee
The Crescent Sun •••

The Crescent Sun is the debut solo album from Nottingham-raised Ellen Mary McGee, former vocalist and founder member of psychedelic folk-rock collective Saint Joan. A short collection of ten tracks weighing in at just over half an hour, it’s nevertheless an intense experience that draws on McGee’s Irish and Romany gypsy descent in the form of sparse Celtic-tinged folk. While her work with Saint Joan was fully fleshed out with five musicians, The Crescent Sun is much more stripped back. Apart from a short blast of harmonica on ‘Theseus’, the instrumentation is pretty much entirely stringed. Without even the barest of percussion the gentle pace is constant, the variation coming through largely in the myriad of tools McGee employs, from the banjo to the dulcimer via the zither. Her voice suits the mood, sweet but raspish, with glimpses of pain coming through. With lyrics that are richly literate and full of imagery (as is often the case with superior folk music), she rises to the challenge and inhabits the roles of her characters very believably – something that in these dark songs must have been rather tortuous to do.

Death is central, whether in the form of the creepy child-killing gypsy woman on the nightmare-inducing ‘The Fatal Flower Garden’ (it’ll give your kids sleepless nights but will keep them away from strangers) or the suicide note recitation on moving closer ‘The Wintering’. A sweet and simple melody belies a dark tale in ‘Upon Death & Dying’, in which the grimness of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ is brought to our minds through the storyteller’s dreams of war. McGee also offers us her own take on the traditional ballad ‘Lord Franklin’s Lament’, which tells of the ill-fated peer’s doomed 19th century expedition to the Arctic. Sinéad O’Connor recently reworked the song for her 2002 album of traditional Irish songs Sean-Nós Nua, and when directly compared, McGee perhaps doesn’t quite reach the same emotional depths as O’Connor did, but she’s successful in pulling off what is a fairly straightforward version nonetheless.

Clearly a lady with literary leanings, McGee makes use of a few classic Greek mythological characters to help explore her themes. In ‘Theseus’, a welcome moment of optimism documents that while one may have felt like a hopeless Sisyphus in the past, there’s still hope of becoming the heroic titular character. On ‘Teeth Of The Hydra’, the many-headed serpent gets referenced in a track full of bitterness. Despite having gone through all the toil and misery of McGee’s tragic stories, the listener doesn’t end up feeling drained by the time the banjo-led ‘The Wintering’ twangs to a close. Perhaps it’s due to the album’s brevity, or maybe it’s the airy, simple arrangements. Regardless, this this is undoubtedly an unusual debut for anyone, and it would be interesting to know McGee’s motivation behind the direction she’s taken. She’s a beautifully poetic writer and her dark tales of woe marry up with the understated melodies well, but in the end the lyrics remain in the mind longer than the tunes do, which while admittedly well drawn and well played, ultimately work as a supporting aid for the stories being acted out.

Ben Urdang
UK release date: 29/06/09; www.myspace.com/thecrescentsun


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[…] Pedder 16/9] 34 The Donnas – Greatest Hits Vol. 16 [Matt Barton, 27/7] 35 Ellen Mary McGee – The Crescent Sun [Ben Urdang, 7/7] 36 Butterfly Boucher – Scary Fragile [Matt Barton 2/7] 37 Speech Debelle – […]

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