November 2002

Carrie Newcomer - The Gathering of Spirits
Philo 711243
Released: 2002

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Ever since I first heard Carrie Newcomer’s The Gathering of Spirits, I have had her tunes running through my head: the highly melodic "The Fisher King," highlighted by Mary Gaines' fine cello; the snappy title song featuring Alison Krauss; the rhythmic "There and Back," with Jim Brock’s solid drumming. These are a few of the particularly catchy cuts.

I am a latecomer to Newcomer, who at this point is not really a newcomer. The liner notes credit her with seven other discs -- released between 1991 and 2000 -- but except for occasional bits on the radio, she has escaped my attention until now. I will certainly want to hear more, for Newcomer is a talented songwriter. Apparently strongly influenced by Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro both in writing and singing, she demonstrates keen understanding of her craft and of the singer-songwriter generation that preceded hers, bringing her own thoughts, experiences, and musical strengths to bear.

One of her many strengths is the way she avoids the monotony into which many singer-songwriters fall by substituting self-expression for communication. The latter involves much more consideration of the audience. As Newcomer puts it in "Straight to the Point" -- an ode to self-assertion reminiscent of Helen Reddy’s 1972 hit "I Am Woman" -- "There is no point if the point is not taken."

And what is Newcomer’s point? Distinctive structures that are recognizable without being dull, compelling melodies, a variety of rhythms, and tempos that never drag combine with a lyrical vision that balances love, closeness, and civility with respect for individuality.

Newcomer urges listeners to value their day-to-day experiences in "Holy as a Day Is Spent," the opening track: "Holy is the busy street / And cars that boom with passion’s beat / And the checkout girl, counting change / And the hands that shook my hands today." Her songs honor the reliability found in genuine love, as in "I’ll Go Too," about a father’s helping a child through difficult experiences: "’I’ll go too, I’ll go too’ / That’s what he’d say and what he’d do / ‘Don’t go alone I’ll walk with you / I’ll go too.’"

Newcomer appreciates the good in life: "I heard an owl call last night / Homeless and confused / I stood naked and bewildered / By the evil people do.… Don’t tell me hate is ever right or God’s will / These are the wheels we put in motion ourselves…."

And, while I like the title song, it leaves me uncertain of exactly what a "gathering of spirits" is. Perhaps it simply celebrates friendship: "There’s a gathering of spirits / There’s a festival of friends / And we’ll take up where we left off / When we all meet again."

I look forward to meeting this performer again in other recordings, and I recommend Spirits to anyone who is not so caught up in fashionable skepticism as to have no room for tastefully arranged, engaging, life-affirming music that artfully avoids being schmaltzy.