Ali Marcus has a deceptive voice. She sings in a high soprano, with an almost conversational tone. It’s not a powerful voice. So it would be reasonable to assume that she would get lost singing with a full band. But nothing of the sort occurs.
Actually, the band is, I think, a four piece all acoustic band, with drums, stand up bass, Marcus’ guitar, and banjo or second guitar. There is also harmonica on some tracks. And not all of the instruments appear on all tracks. And Ali Marcus more than holds her own on vocals. In fact, she portrays a range of emotions in these songs that to me come as a (pleasant) surprise.
The second thing to say about The Great Migration is that Ali Marcus displays a wonderful command of the English language. These are sung poems. And Marcus covers relationships and social issues with equal eloquence. There only a couple of places where the lyrics seem underdeveloped, and these are more noticeable because Marcus sets such a high standard elsewhere. Recession Blues tries to mingle economic troubles with emotional ones, and it seems forced to me. And Hey John is a fan’s message to her musical idol, and I find it cloying. But that still leaves 11 gems.
Catastrophe uses the same strategy as Recession Blues, here intermingling global warming and relationship woes, but this time it works. And after Hey John, I was worried about Song, about the process of songwriting, but the results are fine.
Two songs stand out for me. Wapato is the kind of song Iris Dement might write. Marcus imagines a woman asking her grandmother about her recollections of The Great Depression. The grandmother recalls the happy times. And at the very end of the song, Marcus does something Dement wouldn’t do. The song has a jaunty feel to it, but all of a sudden, at the end, the pace slows abruptly and most of the band drops out, leaving just voice, guitar, and an echoey harmonica. The grandmother has left her nostalgia behind, and returned to the present. It is the most powerful moment on the album.
Poseidon equates the back and forth of the ocean’s tides to the emotions of a relationship. In the arrangement of the song, you can feel the ebb and flow of tides throughout. And the lyrics contain an air of mystery that I find very appealing.
Ali Marcus: Wapato
Ali Marcus: Poseidon