Elemental Grace
(Tidemark, 2000)

Lush rich harmonies and unusual, distinctive instrumentals characterize the music of the duo Madrigal. Debbie Adshade sings with a rich, earthy voice, full of deep, round tones. Judy Kamminga's vocals soar above, flying high on the air with a delicate, gentle touch. It's hard to believe such voices could combine with such a perfect melding of sound, so the two become one harmonious whole, expressing things in ways neither of the two could possibly do alone. These vocal harmonies are key to the duo's success. The combination of sounds brings together the yin and yang of music, making their work complete.

Add to this vocal harmony the careful blending of guitar and Celtic harp, and you have the sound of Madrigal. Incorporating jazzy rhythms, accented by percussive guitar licks and unusual harp patterns, their music rises out of the generic folk category into another category altogether.

Their first release, Elemental Grace, features eleven original songs, plus a cover of Zeppelin's "The Battle of Evermore." Their originals make particular use of the unusual vocal pairing, capitalizing on the differences of their voices, which blend so well. Take, for example, "Cathedral," where each verse is sung twice, once deeply rooted to the earth, with a heavy rhythmic pattern, while a gentle wave of higher vocalese washes over it. Then the verse is repeated in a rapidfire, emotional outburst, like a voice from heaven. Then, following each verse, the voices combine in rich harmony for the chorus, which changes as the song progresses.

Madrigal manages to combine their musical prowess with a great sense of lyrics, which makes their music all the more powerful. My favorite words are featured on "Alchemy," which almost seems to be a chant of a magical recipe, listing "toadstools, lady's slippers, eggshell blue," and "dragon flies and gossamer a cattail pond." This litany of images from nature is much like the "raindrops on noses and whiskers on kittens" from "My Favorite Things."

There is another interesting use of words on "Revelation," which uses a circular, repeating pattern of music behind a prayer-like contemplation. "If I could stop the wind from howling / could I keep the child from crying?" Questioning whether great powers would really solve the world's problems, the chorus reminds us of the circles of life, with the simple words, "Alpha, Omega, The Beginning, The End."

The music uses a wide range of influences to boost its power. "Crow" features a bluesy harmonica to accent its syncopated rhythms. "Little Thing" has a touch of country influence, giving it that backroads sound.

"All Good Children," interestingly placed as the seventh track, has a very catchy chorus which calls out "1234567 all good children go to heaven and if I die before I wake I pray the lord my soul to take." This framing prayer surrounds a cry for justice, harmony, and peace. The music is just innocent enough to give the exact feeling needed, while using just the right pauses to make the listener think, and just the right changes of tempo and style to give emphasis to the brokenness of life.

My biggest complaint with the entire recording is the ordering of "Cathedral" right before "Elemental Grace." The intent was clearly to lead from one directly into the other, but the sounds of the two songs are so similar, both in the harmonies and the rhythmic pattern, as to make it seem they are one long song. The result is that the title cut, which deserves to stand out, gets lost in shuffle.

Speaking of lost things, don't miss "hidden" track 13, an all instrumental track, which shows off some jazzy rhythms and excellent percussion with keyboards.

The opening track, "Wish for You," evokes deep, dreamlike images as it surrounds you with interwoven vocals and instrumental lines. This one is my favorites on the recording, and reminds me a great deal of the music of Trapezoid on their Moon Run album. This is high praise from me, for Moon Run is one of my all time favorite recordings.

Overall, this is a recording not to be missed, if only in the opportunity to see what can be done when combining just the right disparate elements. Adshade and Kamminga have delved deep into their souls and come up with gold.

[ by Jo Morrison ]