Into the Mystic

When Peter Jackson, the inspired director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, required female voices to further enchant the soundtrack to the series’ first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, he rang up two singers from the British Isles.

One was Scotland-born Elizabeth Fraser, of the fragile pop group Cocteau Twins. The other was Ireland-born Enya, the lilting atmospherist whose name is a registered trademark and who is a hobbit-hole industry, if not a genre, unto herself.

During the film’s production, Jackson had no way of knowing that by the time Fellowship and its souvenir soundtrack CD, available on the Reprise record label, were released this past Christmas, Enya’s voice would have taken on added significance in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But so it has.

Enya’s brand of Celtic mysticism is loved and despised by many — and has its roots in an earlier pop-music evocation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology. Hearing her intone cryptic syllables amid composer Howard Shore’s score for The Fellowship of the Ring (she and Fraser sing, largely, not in English, but in a fictional faerie-speak), one can’t help but think of Sandy Denny singing on Led Zeppelin’s classic-rock staple, “The Battle of Evermore.”

Zeppelin visited the treacherous geography of Tolkien’s Middle Earth several times in its career, as early as the band’s second album, on the song “Ramble On,” in which Robert Plant name-dropped both a locale and a leading antagonist from The Lord of the Rings, “‘Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair/ But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her,” and punctuated it with a knowing “Yeah.”

Later, on Zeppelin’s fourth album, in “The Battle of Evermore,” the fair girl was revealed to be Sandy Denny. Despite Denny’s role as one of the principals of the British folk resurgence of the 1960s, she is primarily known to the broader pop-music audience for the words she utters in that single song, beginning with, “Oh, dance in the dark of night/ Sing to the morning light.”

With her hypnotic “dance in the dark of night” phrasing, Denny encapsulated in 1971, the year of “Evermore”‘s release, what has since become one of the traditional roles for women in pop music: the lacey muse. You can hear much of Stevie Nicks’ career, with and without Fleetwood Mac, summarized in the way Denny trills that couplet. You can also hear Kate Bush’s Renaissance Faire warbling, and, by extension, Tori Amos’ — Amos who, of course, inspired fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, a Tolkien devotee, to create a loopy redheaded goddess named Delirium in his comic-book franchise, The Sandman.

Sandy Denny, who passed away in 1978, was one of the core members of the U.K. folk-rock group Fairport Convention (which also gave us guitarist Richard Thompson). Fairport was doubtlessly a role model for Clannad, the Irish band that launched Enya’s career. Enya wasn’t a founding member of Clannad; she joined her older sister’s group in the late ’70s and left a few years later. The success of Enya’s 1988 solo album, Watermark, set her up henceforth as one of the vaguest stars in all of pop music. Like Sade, her lounge-soul analogue, Enya records and tours infrequently, and her limited public presence, like the expertly burnished silence that defines her music, plays a large role in keeping her star power strong.

A Day Without Rain, Enya’s last album before her work with Jackson on Lord of the Rings, was released in late 2000, five years after her previous record, 1995’s The Memory of Trees. Her previous album to that, 1991’s Shepherd Moons, featured a song titled “Lothlorien,” named for a region in Tolkien’s Rings mythology, which was no doubt on the mind of Fellowship director Jackson when he commissioned her. (Hey, it could have been worse. Director Jackson might instead have turned to jazz fusion act Shadowfax, which took its name from Gandalf’s horse.)

Jackson wasn’t the only person to ring Enya during a time of need. This is the same Enya whom many Americans called upon in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A Day Without Rain was released in late 2000 and had sold strongly throughout 2001, but in the weeks following the catastrophic deaths in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., the record’s quietly distinctive single, “Only Time,” offered a salve across the country and pushed the album back into the Billboard Top 10. The album’s title — that image of a calm within a storm — appears to have been an eerily prescient metaphor for the role that Enya’s music played in a lot of people’s lives.

There may be a specific reason, beyond her music’s innate calming influence (well, except for those who find her saccharine and nonsensical), why Americans associated Enya’s album with peace. A Day Without Rain was released on Nov. 21, 2000, dead center between the Nov. 7 U.S. presidential election and Dec. 16, when Al Gore conceded to George W. Bush. Throughout those attenuated weeks, Enya’s popular single, “Only Time,” played on the radio as an unofficial theme song of the unprecedented political drama. In any case, A Day Without Rain remained a top seller for the full year that followed. And, like President Bush, it saw its popularity rise during wartime. The song “Only Time,” whatever you think of Enya’s music overall, became a lullaby of thoughtfulness at a moment when broadcast news services were playing synthesized militaristic anthems to dramatize their 24-hour reportage.

It’s a shame that Elizabeth Fraser, who performs “Lament for Gandalf” in the Fellowship film, is not as widely heard as Enya. Fraser’s former group, Cocteau Twins, produced a broad catalog of quiet incantations, and worked with the esteemed minimalist composer Harold Budd. Like Sandy Denny, Fraser may be best known for her contribution to another group’s song: “Teardop” off the album Mezzanine by Massive Attack, a favorite in upscale shopping malls everywhere. Frankly, there is much quiet pop music lost in the long shadow cast by Enya, two recent records in particular:

Scott Tuma’s Hard Again (Truckstop) has been compared with the work of John Fahey, as has the music of his former band, Souled American — all of which is true enough, but not necessarily helpful because Fahey’s music, a philosophical brand of Americana, is criminally underheard. Fahey passed away just shy of his 62nd birthday, a few months before Hard Again‘s release last year, and there’s been no more-fitting tribute. It’s an album virtually free of vocals, capturing all the beauty of country and folk music without ever dangling a true hook, let alone a verse or a chorus. This is, to use the word twice in a single column, attenuated music — music featuring familiar instruments (guitar, bass and the drums of Jim White, best known as a member of the instrumental rock act Dirty Three) and familiar techniques (experimental overdubbing, for example), but the result is mysterious and beautiful.

As with Tuma’s album, each of the songs on Cinemascope (ML/I), by the German act Monolake, begins as one might expect a normal pop song to begin. In Monolake’s case, the sounds aren’t the humble strummings of an tune, but the deep house beats of an electronica single. When lyrics fail to arrive, the background comes into the foreground. With its subdued rhythms and rudimentary palette, Cinemascope recalls the drive-by-night techno of Underworld and the antiseptic throb of Richie Hawtin. Monolake explores familiar elements of pop music in a manner that sheds new light. Two standout tracks are “Alpenrausch,” which mimics a simple hip-hop drum loop, and “Ionized,” which must be the most extreme reduction of the Bo Diddley beat ever recorded. If you appreciate the Diddley beat as one of pop music’s great spices, then you must sample this highly condensed rendition.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in Pulse! magazine, February 2002.

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