Let's be honest. No listener can truly claim to have a working knowledge of and appreciation for all kinds of music. It's exceedingly rare to get a person who is an equally massive fan of Bulgarian music, '80s happy rap and Norwegian black metal — and is conversant in them all. In this column, it's usually rock, pop and folk — genres that are not entirely independent of each other and often cross-pollinate.
This week, though, the submission is by a guy who sings Yeats poems in a whole-hog, musical-theater style over creepy, cool piano dirges written and played by an inventive gal. What do we do with this?
First things first: admit that this sort of thing isn't your wheelhouse. It's OK. Not everybody is an expert at everything, even the experts. Truth is, this music isn't going on this writer's playlist. Not because it's bad, but because it's a flavor combination that yours truly's palate isn't so amenable to. Really, it seems like this music is actually pretty good. But “Evil Dead 2” is also a really great movie that a lot of people can't watch. Not because it's bad, but because it's not something they want to see. Fair enough.
Another thing: the word “pretentious” comes to mind here. Not because this record is pretentious, but because it could be seen that way by people who think that artsy things are automatically also pretentious. It's an overused word, one that often stands in for the phrase “I don't get it.” Let's be real, though: putting out a super-dramatic album of sung poetry that calls itself a “song cycle” is a risky maneuver, one that many would dismiss with a smirk and a huff.
But there's something inherently cool about following the muse down such a weird path, especially because it's likely that this is the only record of this nature that will be released by Twin Ports-based musicians in 2019. And probably for long after that. So, hey, points for guts and vision.
We'll get to Adam Sippola in a sec, but let's first talk about Wendy Durrwachter's excellent piano work and composing. She plays like a person who has spent time getting professional education in the instrument, but she's also playful and often embraces moments of creepy dissonance in a way that is really creative and alive. Opener “A Coat” is bouncy and creaky and slightly odd, and the way Durrwachter illustrates the line “There's more enterprise / in walking naked” with some very cheeky bum notes is kind of delightful. This might be a questionable observation, but there's a “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood” spirit present, here, where the piano seems to be engaged in an ongoing conversation with the human it's accompanying.
Sippola's voice is, no doubt, the main focus, as it's the instrument tasked with carrying the weight of the poetry. One's enjoyment of this record will probably depend on their love of 20th-century literature and operatic musical theater, as a result. But there's no doubt that Sippola possesses a powerful, clear voice. He's got a good range, and there are points where he seems to be driven by Durrwachter's dark moods to reach down into more Gothic places. The end of “A Dream of Death,” for example, finds Sippola stretching the last word of the sentence “She was more beautiful than thy first love / but now lies under boards” out over 10 long seconds until it drips with dread.
“The Two Trees” is an in-or-out proposition. If you hear “Yeats poems sung in a theater style over piano with no other instruments for 41 minutes,” you're either intrigued, or you're not. But it's certainly an admirable record with a clear sense of direction, played by musicians of significant skill.
Artist: Wendy Durrwachter and Adam Sippola
Album: “The Two Trees: A Yeats Song Cycle”
Recorded at: Weber Music Hall, Duluth
Produced by: Wendy Durrwachter and Adam Sippola
Personnel: Wendy Durrwachter (piano), Adam Sippola (vocals)