Mollie O'Brien,
Things I Gave Away
(Sugar Hill, 2000)

Set aside your preconceptions about Mollie O'Brien before you pop this CD into the player. You'll find only brief glimpses of the bluegrass/folk/Celtic diva that you may have come to know from her other albums. There's a different Mollie O'Brien at work here, and it's one that magazines like Bluegrass Unlimited will have to review in their "On the Edge" section, when they're confronted with something not easily categorizable. You'll find this album loaded with a blues sensibility, but it also branches out into jazz and pop as well, and yes, there's a touch of folk, too.

But what Things I Gave Away really accomplishes is firmly re-establishing O'Brien as a first-rank interpreter of other's songs. There are no originals here, and she needs them no more than Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday did. (OK, I know Billie wrote a few, but her reputation would be no less if she hadn't) O'Brien has also assembled a fantastic group of musicians, but more of them anon.

The CD gets a less than cheery start with Percy Mayfield's "River's Invitation," a suicide contemplation ditty. It's slow-moving blues with a fine New Orleans flavor seasoned by John Magnie's accordion. "When I'm Gone" is a biting blues-rock hybrid on which O'Brien does a nice job. Though her voice is none too gritty, it's got sensitivity and nuances that expand the song's expected dimensions. There are some delicious solos here by Nina Gerber on electric guitar and Sally Van Meter on lap steel.

O'Brien taps the more lovely vein of her voice on "The House, The Boat, The Lovers," a gorgeous ballad with conversational solos between Gerber and Van Meter on resonator guitar. "Practicing Walking Away" is another great song (man, can O'Brien pick 'em!) with a very memorable hook. It's bittersweet and romantic, and O'Brien sings it to perfection. Gerber contributes another moving and intelligent solo. Lennon & McCartney's "You Won't See Me" gets a folk/jazz treatment that shines a new light on this well-known song.

Brother Tim O'Brien makes an appearance in "Train Time," a slow, poetic, and moving ballad. There's a real change of pace in "Throw It Away," an Abbey Lincoln song that O'Brien does accompanied by only Cary Black's acoustic bass. It's a real challenge, and both O'Brien and Black are up to it. The interplay between the two is a wonder to behold. Little Willie John's "Love, Life and Money" blends jazz and blues to great effect, and shines with more superb guitar work from Nina Gerber. "The Right Thing" is just that, a righteous blue-rocker that takes O'Brien into Bonnie Raitt territory, where she seems right at home. The CD ends with a perfect pop/jazz ballad, Henry Hipkins and Lisa Aschmann's "When I've Got the Moon." It's a gem of a song, both musically and lyrically, that deserves to become a standard, and O'Brien caresses it like a lover.

Mollie O'Brien has a marvelous vocal instrument, an uncanny ability to choose the right songs for it, and the dramatic gift of interpreting those songs so that they become well-crafted, musical one-act plays. Toss all thoughts of category out the window, and enjoy a sumptuously sung collection of contemporary American music. O'Brien deserves our thanks for "giving away" these songs to us.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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