Folk purists think the music should be performed without adornment. They believe just a singer and a single instrument, preferably an acoustic guitar or piano, is the perfect combination. Such people will delight in singer songwriter Lynn Miles’ new double-disc collection, Black Flowers Volume 1-2 . While the Juno award-winning artist has released several albums with many musicians supporting her in the past, her new release features Miles simply singing and playing a guitar or piano with minimal production and crystal-clear sound.
The material itself is nothing new. The Canadian musician has recorded these songs on previous records. She’s said to have written more than 600 tunes. The reasons for choosing these 20 tracks seem to have to do with their shared themes of sad times and loneliness. This may not be the most compelling subject for a double album, but it works for two reasons. Miles has a plaintive voice that evokes melancholy, even when she’s singing emotionally neutral lines. And there is something about austere folk that makes the sound truer and more honest when the topic breaks your heart. The message that life kind of sucks and that music offers a balm is as old as the hills.
Miles sings of needing comfort, hiding her heart, feeling pain, finding disappointment, etc., in poetic and lyrical language. Her allusions are more popular (eg. The Wizard of Oz, Joni Mitchell lyrics, Bob Dylan-style harmonica) than literate. This makes her work more accessible and less pretentious than many others who plow the same folksinger songwriter field. It can sometimes lead to cliché: how many ways can one say I just want to go home, find love, and so forth? These 20 songs do tend to sound the same after a while, as even the tunes seem to blend together into one giant acoustic melody. If you close your eyes and pick a track and try listening from another room with the words muffled, chances are you could not identify a particular song.
The pleasures of the two discs lie in this same consistency. There is comfort in formula, and this is inherent in the genre of acoustic folk itself. The music is meant to blend into a tradition where the individual talent serves the larger heritage. Of course, Miles wrote these songs. She is not performing old music, just playing in a style with a great history. Miles’ strength lies in the fact that she can restore vitality to a music with a storied past without making you feel like you are hearing the same old thing.
Miles also has a secret weapon. Like Mitchell and Dylan, she’s a romantic. These songs offer the confessional folk lyrics that wear their hearts on their sleeves. The emotional resonances of these tunes combine well with Miles’ affecting vocals. You may want to cry, in a good way, as a form of catharsis when listening to this record. You remember past heartbreaks that you got over, and you feel stronger in your vulnerability. This offers powerful testimony to Miles’ talents.
Just a girl and her guitar, and maybe her piano and sometimes a harmonica. Even in these postmodern, twenty-first century times, it’s a potent combination.