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Myriam Gendron, "Mayday"

MaydayDespite her slim discography, Montreal-based Myriam Gendron has quietly amassed a very passionate following over the last few years, which is quite an impressive feat given that she frequently sings in French and the bulk of her previous oeuvre was devoted to interpretations of French/Québécois traditional music or Dorothy Parker poems. Obviously, such fare is quite far from the zeitgeist of the present time, but that is a big part of Gendron's allure: her work taps into a deeper and more timeless vein that captures the joy and pain of being alive in an unusually profound and direct way. Those same themes unsurprisingly remain central on Mayday (it was assembled in the wake of her mother's passing), but this third album is Gendron's first to focus primarily on her own original compositions as well as her first release to be professionally recorded in an actual studio. To celebrate that auspicious occasion, Gendron is joined by a host of talented collaborators like Dirty Three's Jim White, Body/Head's Bill Nace, and Marisa Anderson. Characteristically, the result is yet another absolutely mesmerizing Myriam Gendron album.

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Every single Myriam Gendron album to date has included at least one achingly gorgeous and perfect song (Not So Deep As A Well's "Recurrence," Ma Délire's "Go Away From My Window," etc.) and that trend happily continues here. In fact, Mayday actually features TWO such emotional gut punches. The first is "Long Way Home," which calls to mind a great lost '70s folk rock gem by someone like John Martyn. As always, I love Gendron's sad, low voice as well as her lyrics and her simple, unpretentious approach to melody, but this one simply has one heartbreaking line after another. Despite that, the piece still feels wonderfully bittersweet and uplifting due to its arrangement, as Gendron is joined by Marisa Anderson on lead guitar and Jim White on drums to balance the song's deep sadness with rolling and swaying folk rock magic. That "full band" approach is the ideal setting for such a poignant, quietly heavy piece, which is an unexpected evolution of sorts: I have long believed that Gendron's most beautiful songs would work every bit as well with no instrumental accompaniment at all (like all the best folk/traditional music), but Mayday features a handful of pieces in which well-placed guest appearances launch an already hauntingly beautiful song to another level altogether.

The best example of that phenomenon is the album's other stone-cold masterpiece, "Lully Lullay," which is the repurposed Appalachian version of a 15th century Christmas song ("Coventry Carol," which is generally regarded to be the darkest Christmas carol of all time). Instead of singing about King Herod's massacre of children, however, Gendron transforms the piece into a moving farewell to her mother, but the even bigger twist is that she tagged in Jim White for a wild free drumming catharsis ("I wanted something very violent, like a storm"). Dropping a wild drum solo in the middle of an ancient Christmas carol was definitely not something I ever expected Gendron to do and I very much love this new penchant for bold and visceral surprises.

Notably, there is yet another "holy shit-where did THAT come from?!?" moment lurking at the end of the album in "Berceuse," as Gendron invited saxophonist Zoh Amba to try her hand at whipping up a howling tornado (which she does brilliantly). Amusingly, the piece in question is actually a lullabye and one that Gendron thought was already finished, but she was inspired by the dramatic weather unfolding outside her home while she was writing about the piece for an Alan Lomax Digital Archive exhibit. I must say that it was hugely life-affirming to go into this album expecting a fresh batch of sublimely beautiful folk songs only to be blown out of my chair by fiery free jazz eruptions tearing through Christmas carols and lullabies. Gendron has mentioned in the past that she feels more at home in avant-garde circles than in folk/traditional music scenes and I now completely understand why: this is folk music with some legitimately sharp teeth.

The album is rounded out by a pair of acoustic instrumentals ("There Is No East Or West" and "La Luz"), a Gene Austin cover ("Look Down That Lonesome Road"), and a handful of bilingual or French originals. While I am quite fond of "Dorothy's Blues," the French songs did not resonate quite as deeply with me, which makes perfect sense, as my meager French skills prevent me from appreciating the beauty of Gendron's lyrics and reduce those pieces to a purely melodic experience. That is not a grievance so much as it is a testament to Gendron's gifts as a lyricist, however (even with covers and folk songs, as she is not shy about paring away bits that dilute or distract from their soulful essence). Much like Leonard Cohen (whose songs she used to play while busking in the Paris metro), Gendron seems like she is primarily a poet at heart.

The resemblance to Cohen does not end there, however, as Gendron has a similar intuitive gift for transforming her words into something almost transcendent through her choice of melodies and some simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. When she hits the mark, the directness, vulnerability, and intimacy of her songs hit with a power that no amount of clever arranging, technical virtuosity, or studio magic can ever hope to replicate. That is what I went into Mayday expecting: honest songs about the heartache and beauty of life undiluted by artifice or studio polish. I was not disappointed in that regard at all, but the sheer intensity and unexpectedness of some of the wilder instrumental passages was a revelatory addition to an already wonderful vision. That new layer bodes very well for the future, as truly great songs are like pearls or diamonds: they only appear under the right conditions and it can take a long time for them to reach their final shape, but an artist can still make one hell of an album if a handful of such gems is interspersed with a talented cast of musicians unleashing pure fire. In the case of "Lully Lullay," those two things collide in the same song to emphatically remind me exactly why Myriam Gendron is one of my favorite artists on the planet right now.

Listen here.