Mary Fahl Reinvents Iconic and Obscure Art-Rock and 70s Songs
Like so many people around the world over the past year, singer Mary Fahl was dealing with the loss of two of her family members – her mom, and also her sister. To cope, the former October Project frontwoman immersed herself in music which had left an indelible mark on her early years, and the result was the album Can’t Get It Out of My Head, streaming at Spotify. That title is deliberate: the iconic ELO song is the centerpiece of this rare covers collection that’s worth hearing. Fahl is playing the album release show at City Winery on August 9 at 7:30 PM; you can get in for $22.
It’s a collection of ten songs, and an occasional return to the chilly, atmospheric, occasionally gothic-tinged October Project sound. The first is the title track: Jeff Lynne’s sweepingly orchestrated, bittersweet original set the stage for the rest of the classic 1974 Eldorado album. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s about being unable to unsee something. Is it ELO’s symphonic grandeur that imbues their version with so much hope, the blinding flash of discovering pure existential freedom? And is it Fahl’s sober, restrained vocals against her bandmate Mark Doyle’s elegant, pensive layers of guitars and keyboards that seems to more strongly underscore the tortuous inaction of the second verse, and crushing philosophical weight of the third? Or does this just reflect the zeitgeist, the horrors of the world post-March 2020? It’s never safe to read too much into artistic intention: Lynne always said he was ok with whatever interpretation a listener gave a song if it helped them somehow. Clearly it helped Fahl.
If Can’t Get It Out of My Head is about piercing the veil of maya, Comfortably Numb is the reverse of that. Fahl completely reinvents the song as a sinister seduction, speeding it up as Doyle becomes a low-key, one-man Pink Floyd.
Fahl does the album’s final cut, Richard Thompson’s The Great Valerio as spare, drifting, hypnotic trip-hop: it’s the real comfortably numb here, and the closest thing to the October Project. How does she manage to remake the Moody Blues’ Tuesday Afternoon? By finding its inner ghazal, stretching her voice to its formidable low limits! The sweep of the string section – violinists Edgar Turmajyan, Jonathan Hwang, Neomi Miloradovic and Joe Davoli, violist Jessica Tumajyan and cellist Kate LaVerne over Josh Dekaney’s elegant drums complete an exotically symphonic tableau.
Fahl and Doyle recast Nick Drake’s River Man as subtly turbulent Supertramp-style keyboard art-rock. Fahl’s cover of the Stones’ Goodbye Ruby Tuesday looks back to late 60s Marianne Faithfull, but with considerably more energy (and a great inside orchestral-Stones joke). Likewise, Fahl takes the Mamas and the Papas’ Got A Feelin’ to a simmering chamber-pop intensity: Lou Reed could only have wished to have coaxed half as much power out of Nico on the Chelsea Girl album. Fahl also infuses her take of Neil Young’s Don’t Let It Bring You Down with welcome, wary energy.
The last two songs are more obscure. Fahl sticks with epic grandeur in Judy Collins’ Since You’ve Asked, then channels hope against hope throughout George Harrison’s Beware of Darkness: “It’s not what you are here for,” Fahl implores. There aren’t many rock cover albums that are worth hearing, but like Mary Lee Kortes‘ take on Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, this one’s in very select company and one of the best albums of 2022 so far.