Chris Pureka is simply one of the very best, and certainly one of the most exciting artists on the contemporary acoustic music scene. She has been building a loyal following since her first recording, Driving North (here), appeared in 2004. There is something about her vocals—often sad but always riveting -- that grab you and pull you in. There is an urgency and seriousness about her music, but the listener is left feeling energized rather than depleted. She is equally adept at finger picking on the guitar as she is in turning a lyric. And her tunes are not the kind you turn to for a quick listen. There is a story that unfolds in the careful listening of each song. You will want to hear every word.
How I Learned to See in the Dark is Pureka's most mature and compelling work to date. The songs have been produced and arranged for a band of musicians rather than focusing on Pureka's vocal and guitar alone. And what a band it is! There are gorgeous fiddles, cello, bass , harmonium, drums, electric and lap steel guitars. The music is layered and complex. There is a lot of darkness here, expressed in a painterly style featuring shades of gray. But there is light and hope as well. It all adds up to a stunning work of art.
The recording opens with Pureka's driving guitar in Wrecking Ball. Erin McKeown quickly picks up the pace on electric guitar. Merrill Garbus joins in with fiddle and Sturgis Cunningham drives home the beat on drums. It is one of the best songs written about heartache and loss. The CD's title comes from the lyrics here, and hints of hope at the end of the tunnel:
I'm thinking of the night that all the lights went out,
Hangman begins with Pureka's soft yet urgent vibrato, urging the lover walking out the door not to let the relationship they have built together go.
There is a lovely bridge with two fiddles meandering in and out of the melody that transports this song to a place of pure musical delight. And then the song fades out to the sound of a single, plaintive violin.
Shipwreck is the one you will be humming and the one that grabs you by the throat. The relationship has ended leaving the lover feeling shipwrecked. : "you were a miracle of sadness,/like a thousand widowed doves,/just singing to the moon…/Walk, walk, walk/Bye, bye, bye." It is full of feeling, with the one who is rejected wearing her heart on her sleeve. Yet the sea beyond pulls her away.
Sometimes it is not the words that strike us, but the sounds we hear, the pitch of the guitar and the way the melody hits us in the heart. Barn Song is one of these tunes. There is an "ooh—ooh" sound here where Pureka hits the deep dark place where longing begins and ends, and it touches us in a way that speaks to pure heartache. But heartache like this has never sounded so good. She achieves the same effect in Broken Clock where her "aah uh aah uh aah" is so moving that we can almost see her heart breaking....
As dark with despair as Song for November is, we are left with these words of hope and of light: "Along the way the light is the medicine/Along the way we search for the sun, /to call us down the dark corridor back into the world…"
And so it is with Chris Pureka's How I Learned to See in the Dark, with its mixture of deepest loss and despair, there is the light of hope where the promise of love still resides, waiting to be discovered. This is the master work that Pureka has been reaching for since she first picked up a guitar and dug deep into her heart, and in turn, ours. The words and the music are breathtaking. Although the musical journey is wrought with images of darkness and night, Pureka's voice shines as a beautiful beacon of how songs can touch us and change our lives. This is what we have been waiting for. This is Pureka's moment. This is how you produce a masterpiece.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society and Roberta B. Schwartz.
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