There some things to like about Live From the Union Chapel -- just not enough of them.
It's hard to stand out amongst the ranks of scruffy, sensitive singer-songwriters, but Damien Rice makes it seem easy. His 2003 debut, O, not only introduced Rice's perfect mix of lyricism and heartfelt vocals, but also his masterful sense of dynamics. His songs often glide from a whisper to a crescendo, with Lisa Hannigan's vocals often acting as a poignant counterpoint to Rice's own.
Live from the Union Chapel was recorded at a 2003 London date, shortly after O's release. Why it's being released now is anyone's guess, especially since it comes out at essentially the same time as Live at Fingerprints Warts and All, a live disc available only at independent record stores. Union Chapel enjoyed a previous life as a promotional-only disc, where its skimpy eight-song length made sense. As an official release, though, the listener's left asking, "Where's the rest of the show?"
That's not to say there's nothing enjoyable on Union Chapel. The crowd is in fine form, showing a mixture of enthusiasm and reverence. Their wild between-song cheers quickly die down to rapt silence befitting a poetry reading during each song -- a necessity given the often hushed nature of Rice's music. The songs from O keep their same basic template: acoustic arrangements accented by mournful cello. It would have been a shame, though, to lose the emotional weight that the cello lends to Rice's already heart-stricken lyrics. And then there's the interplay between Rice and Hannigan, which O captured so well. The two don't harmonize so much as they let their voices float together, like wisps of smoke curling around each other.
In fact, Hannigan's solo turns account for Live From the Union Chapel’s special moments. In addition to her role as Rice's co-vocalist, her singing on "Then Go" is especially impressive. She also struts and vamps her way through a smoky, bongo-backed rendition of Nina Simone's "Be My Husband". And then there's her dark reworking of "Silent Night", which uses the original's melody to back a bitter tale of a relationship gone wrong. Already a highlight of Rice's catalog, it certainly doesn't disappoint here. Reportedly, Hannigan no longer sings with Rice, which is truly a shame. She was a bit of a secret weapon, and she very nearly steals the show on Live From the Union Chapel.
By and large, though, the songs from O don't differ appreciably from the original studio versions. "The Blower's Daughter" boasts an impressive harmony fade towards the end, so perfectly executed it's hard to believe there's not a technological cheat involved, but only "Volcano" stands out as its own unique beast, kicking off with some funky guitar and then winding its way to a crescendo of distorted vocals. Although a fine performance, that sameness -- and the disc's short length -- work against Live from the Union Chapel, making it feel like a stopgap release to tide fans over.