Boiled in Lead,
Songs from The Gypsy
(Omnium Recordings, 1995)

I saw a familiar face in a used CD store the other day. It was on the cover of an album I found buried in the racks, but it wasn't the face of any new pop sensation or grizzled old folkie. Rather, it was a face I knew from a book I'd only recently read, by an author I'd discovered at the instigation of a certain Canadian lass. ... Oops, sorry -- I got lost in a moment of reverie there. Anyway, the author is Steven Brust (with Megan Lindholm) and the book is The Gypsy. What do you know, it's an album, too. Brust and Adam Stemple, vocalist for folk-rockers Boiled in Lead, collaborated to write words and music for the book's soundtrack. (Dare I say, it's a novel idea? Sorry....)

The novel by Brust and Lindholm is an enigmatic tale of lost memories, hidden and forgotten identities, gypsies, seers and otherworldly nasties, cops and coachmen, deception and death, music and those family ties that bind. It is both confusing and absorbing, a story of urban fantasy which takes a little work to read. The struggle to find your bearings while the characters find theirs is worth it, however; I'd certainly recommend it to anyone who likes the likes of Charles de Lint, Terri Windling and Emma Bull.

OK, so now it's set to music. No, this isn't a lyrical version of the book, but it is a sort of musical summary of themes and plot threads. The album, like the book, begins with the "doom teka" of the tambourine, leading into the song "Raven, Owl and I," a song from the title gypsy's point of view: "The city lights, they hurt my eyes, the noises make me wince. The coachman left me here, which I've regretted ever since. I'll never hear those songs again but still I sometimes cry, When I think of how we left our world, Raven, Owl and I."

If you've read the book, that might have made some sense. If you haven't ... well, it has a nice rhyme scheme, eh? The songs speak of a gypsy pursued, a gypsy incarcerated, a gypsy lost and searching ... and a coachman, too. Appreciating the album depends largely on knowing the story; otherwise, the lyrics make little sense and the atmosphere they conjure is merely fog. That's not to say the music couldn't stand on its own, but a familiarity with the characters and storyline certainly helps.

Everything came from the pen of Brust and Stemple except for "Ugros," a mostly lively, traditional Hungarian fiddle tune which quickly became my favorite track on the album. But don't let me sell the nine vocal tracks short -- they've got the right touch of questing desperation to buttress the title.

The tunes are solid Boiled in Lead, in this case an appropriately vagabondish blend of back alley bluesy folk-rock. Stemple's vocals, rough and careworn, suit the tone of the story well. (Although some vocal distortions on "Red Lights and Neon" had me checking to see if the CD was scratched. It's not.) And Josef Kessler works his (apparently borrowed) fiddle with a very gypsy-like flair throughout.

As an added bonus, the CD slips into your computer for a few extra goodies. Besides the credits, the lyrics and a note from Brust (all of which are available in the liner notes) and the music itself (which never sounds great on a computer unless your system is far superior to mine), the CD-ROM includes the complete text of the book, with sound files interspersed for a little extra flair. Still, I'd hate to read an entire novel sitting at my computer desk, so the computer bonus didn't excite me much.

The novel, when I read it last year, was a little tough to get into. I was close to tossing it aside and picking up something lighter, some Pratchett or Holt perhaps, but I stubbornly stayed with it. And I'm glad I did, 'cause it didn't take too many chapters before I was hooked into the story. The album is the same way; the first time I listened to it, I didn't like it much. The second time it caught my attention a little more. Now I'm enjoying it on its own merits, book tie-in aside.

Bottom line: If you like Boiled in Lead, Songs from The Gypsy is a good addition to your collection. If you like Brust and Lindholm's The Gypsy, it's a nifty interpretation of the tale. If neither book nor band turns you on, pass this one by.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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