On this album, her first solo release after a recording career spent primarily with the vocal ensemble Kitka, American Lily Storm sings Eastern European songs, Balkan songs, Russian songs, and songs from the Mediterranean. A broad collection. She takes the music seriously, too. “She has studied with many traditional singers”, her website states, and then it goes on to list them: Donka Koleva, Kremena Stancheva, Merita Halili, Mariana Sadovska, Christos Govetas, Carl Linich, Tsvetanka Varimezova, Radostina Kaneva, and Tatiana Sarbinska. Photographs show her clear-eyed and composed, looking dignified and a little stern, as if she thinks she might be able to dissect the horizon by outstaring it. It is not exactly a scholar’s gaze. She looks as if she means to get on top of things. “I refrain from innovation for innovation’s sake”, she writes, “but I cannot help but also bring to [the songs] an American and modern perspective. For that reason, I also want to point towards those who are closer than I am to the original traditions”. Then she gives us a list of other musicians we should be listening to. “Hayrik Mouradian has recorded a wealth of songs from the Lake Van region … Éva Kanalas performs ancient Moldavian songs with purity and grace … there is a 7-volume collection of [Russian] field recordings on the label Boheme Music which is fascinating”.
This is my longwinded way of explaining that If I Had a Key to the Dawn is in absolutely no way a frivolous album. Eugene Hütz would be her polar opposite. Her singing on If I Had a Key to the Dawn is mostly low and plaintive and the instruments that accompany her attune themselves sympathetically to her mood. The Armenian woodwind known as a duduk hoots through the speakers like an owl. Something like a harp tickles itself throughout a Hungarian song called “Love, Love”. The tenseness of this harp-tremble suggests that the song is constantly about to erupt into something noisier — it’s like the tension that comes before a punchline — but this never happens. The song ends. The album is like that: a long waiting quiver.
The songs she has chosen sound like laments, or the love songs of women whose lovers are absent. Hearing these songs, you’d guess that they were originally the self-expression of people who were not rich, not famous, and never dreamt they would become so. They suffered, not a sudden disaster, but one long chain of minor or major unhappinesses extending throughout their lives. They are not angered by the situation, but resigned, and a bit tired, not really expecting anything to change, and not about to do anything to change it. The tone is an intimate, humble, ongoing ache. The power of the songs lies in the simple intensity of that humility.
Storm draws out the melancholy faithfully, carrying long notes and making them wriggle a little as they travel, shaking the note like a handkerchief to get your attention. That shake lets us know that the emotion in this person is so strong it’s affecting her voice. Where the steadiness of a Gregorian chant demonstrates the singer’s faith in the unchanging nature of God, the wriggle in the village lament demonstrates the singer’s faith in the fallibility of humankind. The lover might be estranged from you forever, the dead have died in vain, life is miserable and could get worse. We are leaning on the fallible.
I was three quarters of the way through If I Had a Key to the Dawn when I realised I could not, in retrospect, distinguish one song from another. I had no idea what they had sounded like individually. The track that made this idea occur to me is called “Green Leaf of a Pear Tree” and it was the first song that seemed different from the rest. It starts with an accordion, and the accordion is bright, it’s prancing — not humble like the rest, just a kick of sound. After all that lamenting I’d forgotten that a noise like this could exist. The publicity tells us that “the pieces flow together a series of dreams” and so they do, but emotionally the dream-series is a bit of a monoculture. In this respect the album, though beautiful, is frustrating, like a very handsome person who never smiles, who never laughs too much or cries or screams, and yet you can’t stop admiring the keen perfection of their cheekbones.