I first became entranced with the voice(s) of Moira Smiley via You Tube clips of her fronting one particular lineup of Canadian banjoist Jayme Stone’s Alan Lomax project, Folklife. There’s considerable wonder and beauty to be found in the way she transforms herself into an accordion-wielding Francophone chanteuse (“Mwen Pas Danse”), rides the finest of lines between whimsy and melancholy (“Hey, Lally Lo”) and expands upon a simple Caribbean gospel chant (“I Want to Hear Somebody Pray”) by capping it with a series of heavenly scats, rhythmic breaths and Americana howls.
There’s much more to her than that, of course. Having mastered traditional vocal techniques from locales as disparate as Appalachia, Ireland and Eastern Europe, the Vermont-born Smiley is a songstress seemingly without limits. She’s been a vital part of Celtic supergroup Solas and renowned voice ensemble Kitka, helmed her own vocal group VOCO, performed with early music consorts in the UK, served as musical director for theatrical productions and somehow found time to become a multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger who blends folksy and innovative like none other. Unzip the Horizon is her latest, and as the title implies, it’s quite a reveal. Smiley starts it off on a rather ironic note with “Mother of Invention,” suggesting lyrically that she is nothing of the kind even as her haunted vocal and string-bolstered arrangement beg to differ.
“Bellow,” on the other hand, asserts “we’ll unzip the horizon with our voices,” said voices being the kind that preserve traditional music and perhaps create a bit of dissent. Smiley’s own voice is one that doesn’t need any sort of production trickery to sound grand, so even when the largely acoustic instrumentation is given a contemporary sparkle, it’s the vocals that run things. Whether she’s carrying a slow-burning torch above sparse sounds a notch beyond ambient (“One Step Dance”), addressing a global problem on a personal level (“Refugee,” video below) or leading a like-minded chorus in understated celebration (“Sing About It”), Smiley makes every word and inflection cut deep. Polyphonic backup voices provide support at various points, contributing to rhythm as much as melody.
A lot of the magic happens when Smiley is more or less alone vocally, as on the striking “Our Time,” but she doesn’t come across as a solo artist in terms of being the whole show. Indeed, there’s nothing showy about this release. Despite tremendous talent, Smiley uses it not to dazzle but to reach the heart, and does so with an array of mainly original songs that are equal parts intimate and sonically visionary. She’s looking to share what she has gleaned musically, and while it may take many more albums to achieve that feat, Unzip the Horizon points the way by presenting Moira Smiley as an artist of independent spirit who applies subtle global touches (a hint of bluegrass here, a snippet of Africa there, etc.) in service of a voice that takes the listener to places ever engaging and invites other voices to join in. - Tom Orr
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