Mike Breen,
Past Lives
(Basilbone Records, 2000)

Past Lives is a quiet and thoughtful album from singer-songwriter Mike Breen. His strength is in storytelling, and his songs tell stories and evoke times in people's lives. Most of the songs are strongly in the modern singer-songwriter tradition, with the exceptions being "Take a Little Time" and "Sparkle Do," country songs, and "Corrs Medley," a blend of three Celtic tunes in which Breen's playing of several instruments sets off Ron Rutowski's wonderful fiddling.

Four of the songs tell stories of people's lives. "Past Lives" and "Autumn Afternoon" relate tales of love, and "Girl from Northern Maine" tells of a man meeting his grown daughter for the first time while remembering her mother and their past relationship. This song, in particular, has an effective combination of the past and present, and lyrics with a catchy tune. "The Little Things" also blends past and present, as a father sees his son driving his car for the first time, while wondering where the time had gone.

"Sparkle Do" is the catchiest song on the album, with "Take a Little Time" a close second. Breen has considerable ability in the country style, and both of these songs showcase it. "Sparkle Do" has the better lyrics, and describes going out as friends with a former love, and wondering if, perhaps, the feelings can be recaptured.

Two of the songs are almost pure description. "State Fair" describes visiting the fair accurately and affectionately, with all its varied attractions, and made me nostalgic for the one I attended in Minnesota. "Home Again" describes the southwest beautifully.

Relationships can be hard, and "Yesterday's News" and "The Letter 'L'" talk about this. "Yesterday's News" regrets the end of a love. "The Letter 'L'" is very interesting, combining an alphabet song with pondering about the state of a love. Each letter is combined with a positive -- or difficult -- aspect of the relationship, and the result is both clever and touching.

The liner includes the complete lyrics to every song on the album, and in a size large enough to read easily (although in a few places the underlying art obscures the lyrics slightly). I always appreciate it when songwriters include the lyrics. Breen has also included the most detailed list I have every seen of the exact instruments and equipment used on this album, which was very interesting to read. His credits to the other people who worked on Past Lives are also featured, and also with a clarity that is unusual and appreciated.

Past Lives is a introspective and intelligent album, and enjoyable to hear. The songs stand up well to repeated playing, since one can think about them as well as just enjoying them. It's not as emotionally engaging as some modern folk, but is a very good album for all that. Breen is a skillful songwriter, singer and musician, and this album would be particularly appreciated by those who enjoy narrative songs.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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