The Starlit Jewel (CD)

The Starlit Jewel
Flowinglass Music
2821 Truman Ave.
Oakland, CA 94605

Reviewed by Paula DiSante

In 1996, the Bay Area’s own Avalon Rising, a Mediaeval-Celtic fusion ensemble, produced The Starlit Jewel, a limited edition audio tape of the late Marion Zimmer Bradley’s seven song Rivendell Suite, plus nearly as many original compositions inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth poetry. The hope of the group, fronted by singer-songwriters Margaret Davis and Kristoph Klover, was to one day release this recording on compact disc. That day has arrived.

While the lineup of songs is the same, musically and personnel-wise much has changed. Brocelïande is the group’s new name. Besides Davis and Klover, members now include Karl Franzen and Kris Yenney, and guest musicians include former members of Avalon Rising. As for the music, five of the songs have been re-recorded from scratch, another sports a freshly-minted lead vocal, and the rest of the tunes have been re-mixed and re-mastered, to great effect. The musicianship, it is gladly noted, remains first-rate.

The entire collection now has a more minstrel-like quality. Listening to it, it is easy to imagine one’s self seated front and center in Elrond’s Hall of Fire, while the singers and musicians fill the air with convivial merrymaking and heartfelt lament.

The five all-new versions of the tunes are best described as musical makeovers, transformed in the intervening years into even richer, more complex melodies. Standouts here include “Song of the Eldar in Exile,” which has grown from choir-like and ethereal into a song of immediacy and presence. Davis, in a breath of anticipation, holds her notes just a touch longer than before, and her vocals are more resonant and full.

Hobbit Walking Song,” though polished up with a new guest vocal, preserves the sounds of the woodlands: the tramp of feet and the lilt of birdsong. This interpretation is even folksier than before, and the harmonies blend nicely, especially in the “round” near the end of the tune. The spirited fun of “Merry Old Inn” more than doubles in this recording, where sassy supporting vocals strike a spunky counterpoint to Klover’s rollicking frontman revels. This wink-and-a-grin rendition truly makes one want to dance a jig on a tabletop beside a certain Mr. Frodo Baggins.

When Spring Unfolds” holds on to its 19th Century American frontier flavor. But now it moves from winsome Western campfire-style ballad to an engaging Music Hall playlet, while preserving all the homey appeal of the original. The “Bath Song” is an upbeat romp, sung with lusty — and almost drunken — abandon. Each of the “hobbit” voices tries mightily to outdo the others in the sheer joy of his well-earned ablutions.

The six songs which are re-mixed and re-mastered, but not re-recorded, have also undergone quite a transformation. The re-mixing has had an almost uniform result: the placement of the lead vocals to the forefront of the music, whereas before they were set within the midst of the melodies. This forward placement of the voices adds to the overall “troubadour” sound of this CD, which produces a sort of “Middle-earth Unplugged” experience. This is particularly effective in the wistful “In Western Lands,” where Klover’s sweet, reflective tenor is gently complemented by Davis’s superb harp work. The re-mix, however, costs “Galadriel’s Lament” a measure of its dreamlike distinction and mythic power. But the resultant clarity of voice preserves in the song a venerable Lórien-like beauty and poignancy, so any perceived trade-off is negligible.

In one case only can it be said that the new version equals — but does not surpass — the original, and that is in the showpiece “Lay of Nimrodel.” The original vocal emerged as if from the midst of a dream, the music swirling like a tossing Sea in a rarefied “wall of sound” so encompassing as to make Phil Spector puff up with pride. The brooding, reverberating cello played a pivotal part in the aural mystery and mythic nature of the song. But in the latest rendition the sonorous overtones of the strings recede into a much less prominent role. And due to an unforeseen caprice of the mix, the thrill of the trill in Davis’s voice as she sings the penultimate Amroth is here subdued when heard through standard speakers (although it remains discernable through a pair of headphones).

Yet even with these shifts in musical emphasis, this version of the “Lay of Nimrodel” is still a feast for the ears, due to the fresh distinction of the secondary vocals. Davis’s heart-piercing lead entwines with the stirring support of Klover’s passionate back-up, as well as with her own sublime soprano harmonies. There are bracing thrills and breath-catching beauties to be found here, thanks to the multifarious miracles of Davis’s ardent interpretation. In its new incarnation, The Starlit Jewel continues to delight and astound. This dazzling re-release was well worth the wait. It should find an honored place in many a Tolkien-lover’s CD collection. Most highly recommended.

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