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Class ?

Main Category: Celtic/Medieval
Also applicable: Ambient
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Loreena McKennitt fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Loreena McKennitt fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1985
Overall rating =

Maybe this isn't "outstanding", but it's still averagely beautiful folk music. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for some good har-har-harp.


Track listing: 1) Blacksmith; 2) She Moved Through The Fair; 3) Stolen Child; 4) The Lark In The Clear Air; 5) Carrighfergus; 6) Kellswater; 7) Banks Of Claudy; 8) Come By The Hills; 9) Lullaby.

McKennitt's debut album isn't nearly as much interesting per se as when one learns about how it was made. Not only did Loreena produce and record it almost in its entirety, playing the harp (mostly), the synthesizers and everything else that matters, not to mention such a negligible little tidbit as singing, of course; she even set up her own independent record label (Quinlan Road) to package and distribute it, originally in cassette form. Granted, it's not so hard to do that with an album of nine traditionally arranged Celtic ballads as it is with an album of bombastic, over-arranged pop tunes, but taken together with the "self-owned record label" thing, it's a pretty major achievement, especially if you're a thoroughly unknown Canadian lass with a penchant for Celtic folk. And, of course, especially if you do this in 1985, when self-owned record labels did not share the half-blessed, half-accursed tendency to spring up like mushrooms after a tropical storm.

The songs themselves are nothing particularly special - meaning that this kind of material is rather natural to come by if one is interested in performing folk music; but the aura that surrounds them is nice and fresh, provided aura can be "fresh" in the first place. Nothing like the classic Loreena material which she's really famous for, but you don't arrive at a distinct individual sound from nothing, and you even more rarely arrive at a distinct individual song in cassette form. And if you ask for my entirely subjective, vulnerable opinion, Elemental nevertheless had to sound really refreshing at a time when even the major Celtic folk bands like Clannad were heading into watered-down commercialized mediocrity. Besides, in a certain way, I'd actually rather hear ten traditional Celtic albums from ten different performers rather than from the same one, however great that performer might be - because there's only so much you can do with that material if you're not twisting your formula in different ways, and Loreena's take on the thing is certainly different from Clannad's, or anybody else's that I've heard (granted, that's my true Achilles' heel for you).

Gotta warn you, though, that this is one "comatose" album: no jigs for you on here, nothing even closely resembling an upbeat song. That's Ms McKennitt: atmosphere and relaxation above all, and leave the jigs to all 'em Steeleye Spans and Fairport Conventions! As much as I hate drifting into banal territory by abusing the word 'spirituality', it's hard to abstain from it in a review like this. Or, come to think of it, maybe one should look for the key in the album title. Elemental - Elements - this is a nature-oriented album, as evidenced by the purity of the vibes, the album sleeve of Loreena running through the field, the escapism notes in songs like 'Come By The Hills'. So, dear friends, if you like "getting one with nature" and all that other natural stuff, this album is totally for you. Personally, I don't, but this album is still totally for me. Medieval purity in the mid-Eighties - ain't that a wonder?

Of course, the best thing about these tunes on here is still Loreena's beautiful voice; it's not much different from the classic Sandy Denny/Maddy Prior/Maire Brennan/you name it standard, of course, but it's just as deep and powerful and capable of emotional modulation as the voices of these other greats, and that's no mean feat, so unexpectedly coming out of the depths of Winnipeg; I bet anybody who had the luck of actually finding that tape in 1985 had to pick his jaw up from the floor as the first subtle verse of 'Blacksmith' tingled through the room. As a matter of fact, maybe it's the cassette form, or maybe it's just that the harp is such a quiet instrument, but the vocals are of a totally powerhouse nature here - meaning that Elemental doesn't really agree with being treated as background music; Loreena commands your attention from the very start.

Most of the songs are, naturally, covers of traditional Celtic/Anglo-Saxon ballads. On one of them, 'Carrighferghus', Loreena makes the mistake of ceding the vocal spot to "guest star" Cedric Smith, who also helps her with some of the guitar work on the album - he actually does a technically good vocal job, but for some reason (maybe just in comparison to Loreena) he comes across as pretty wooden and insincere, in the worst traditions of folk music rather than the best ones. Why is it so that technical perfection in folk music works so well for female singers and so very often runs in the opposite direction for male ones? I guess we'll never really find out until the day we finally see a prominent female reviewer within the Web Reviewing Community...

The rest, thankfully, are just Loreena and nothing else, my favourite of these being the gorgeous 'Come By The Hills' - where some particularly sensitive nerve just bursts inside your humble servant each time she arrives at the final 'cares of tomorrow must wait till this day is done' line of each verse. 'Blacksmith' is easily the most 'rowdy' song on the album, and that's only because Loreena sings it a little bit faster than most of the other songs, and plus you have an accordeon in the mix. But stuff like 'Kellswater' and 'Banks Of Claudy', however beautiful, will lull you to sleep in no time (which isn't a bad thing as far as I'm concerned - now when you're lulled to sleep by, uhm, Foreigner, for instance, that's a different kind of problem).

The standard routine of the album is very occasionally interrupted by something mildly different, like the instrumental number 'Lark In The Clear Air', showcasing Loreena's instrumental prowess with the harp, which gets my thumbs up (I love the sound of the harp, and for some reason, you don't find the harp that often in folk rock. Too big to lug around the studio or what?). Also, two numbers aren't so much traditional songs, but rather Loreena's adaptations of some of her favourite poems to traditionally arranged melodies: 'Stolen Child', replete with mood-setting synth atmospheres and eerie dog barking in the background, really does a great favour to W. B. Yeats, and 'Lullaby' is a bit more debatable, because the overtly theatrical declamation of Blake's 'O for a voice like thunder...' (dunno who does it; if it's Cedric Smith again, somebody's gonna get hurt) kinda gets on my nerves, and simply doesn't work all that well in the context of the song's gentle melody and Loreena's lulling chanting. Still, it is stylistically more close to Loreena's "classic" material than anything else on here.

In short, a promising and consistent debut with little to dislike. Everybody needs at least a tiny bit of music like this in his world - pure, raffinated lyricism, straight from the days when art was nowhere near as afraid of "genteelizing" the surrounding world as it is today. It's a kind of fantasy world in which noone should ever be ashamed of getting lost, even if only for half an hour. Cares of tomorrow must wait till this day is done.



Year Of Release: 1987

Another Quinlan Road production, it's definitely low-key and certainly not a must have, but it's an album of really simple goals anyway - just a bunch of old, rusty traditional English, Scottish, and Irish Christmas carols all played and sung by Loreena alone, with just one track a vocal duet between her and Cedric Smith. So if old fragile-sounding Christmas carols in spare arrangements are your thing, help yourself.

It's certainly refreshing to hear all this stuff performed in such a solitary, individualistic manner, without lame orchestras, cheesy synth beats, corny string quartets, or pedestrian syrupy vocal harmonies. And definitely a nice alternative to hauling out your generic Christmas albums for the ten millionth time to please the guests - in fact, it's not a party album at all. It's much more helpful to listen it on those rare occasions when you don't have anyone around for Christmas. Granted, it's kinda hard to listen to 'cuz it all sounds the same: slow, solemn, humorless, religious to the core, you know the drift. But what did you expect? Mike Love dueting with Loreena on 'Little Saint Nick'?

Every possible source specifies that Loreena recorded all the songs on various locations, such as inside an old Canadian church and an old Irish monastery, all for the sake of capturing the best acoustic effect. And it does pay off - the sound is really haunting, with the dame's voice bouncing off the walls and creating whole series of echoes which, at times, could be mistaken for overdubs (well, sometimes there are real overdubs, which makes the analysis even more difficult, but I'm pretty sure I can tell the differences). As for the instrumentation, it's all standard fare: mostly harp and accordion, with a few tracks also sporting light percussion, and then there are occasional sound effects like big church bells and stuff.

Two of the tracks are self-penned instrumentals: 'Banquet Hall' is, predictably, a medieval-styled harp-and-tympani driven merry song, while 'The Stockford Carol' is slower and more "meditative" (but also harp-driven). And actually, I like them maybe even more than the vocal numbers, because they help concentrate on that terrific acoustic side - on 'Stockford Carol', you can almost feel the fingers plucking the strings, and every time she plucks a particularly high note, it reverberates through the building for at least half a second, which, like, really puts you in the environment.

As for the vocal tracks, well, not much to say here. On one song ('Balulalow'), Loreena sings in Scottish English - raising the "authenticity" quotient up high. She doesn't sing Irish on the traditional Irish songs, though, but you can't win 'em all. On another couple of songs, she delivers the goods acappella, particularly the album-closing 'Let All That Are To Mirth Inclined', where the only "accompaniment" are church bells that come in from time to time to a somewhat, I must say, gruesome effect. And, like I said, on one track she duets with Cedric Smith. A problem is that many of the songs are so damn long, but then again, they all sound so similar anyway that it would make no difference if she'd made some of them shorter to make way for additional ones.

So, while it's obvious that the album essentially counts as a minor footnote in Loreena's history, it still has several big pluses. First, it sounds nice. Second, it's a good treat for all you authentic Christmas freaks, whoever you are. Third, it further helps establish her reputation as that hardcore trend-ignoring gal who'll push her and her own agenda only - and in this case, the agenda is "return to roots of the roots". I mean, harp? Tympani? Recording in churches? Fuck modern technology and stuff? I bet if she could, she'd fuck the recording equipment as well; too bad they didn't even have 8-track recording in the times of King Henry VIII. That kinda screws up the game somehow, I guess.


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