This Is What You’re Like by Sarah Kirkland Snider
Sarah Kirkland Snider: Penelope
New Amsterdam (023)
Shara Worden, vocals
Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman
Lately our pages have been rife with conversations about musical genre; composition versus songwriting, contemporary music versus musical theater, and much more. It seems reasonable that Penelope, a brand new song cycle by composer and New Amsterdam Records co-founder Sarah Kirkland Snider (with lyrics by playwright Ellen McLaughlin), may spark even more conversation through it’s genre-blending style. It’s compelling enough to throw categorizations to the wind and revel in its unique dialect.
Based upon Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope flips the saga to the woman’s point of view and moves it to the present day. The protagonist, sung by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, attempts to restore her war-torn husband’s damaged memory by reading to him from Homer’s epic story. Worden’s pop-inflected vocal style, blended with the lush orchestral sound of the ensemble Signal, along with electric guitars, drums and deftly interwoven electronics by Michael Hammond, travels through a tapestry of settings and moods ranging from emotive and heart-wrenching to haunting and ethereal.
It comes as no surprise that Penelope was originally conceived as a theater piece by Snider and McLaughlin—the work is structured around several meaty songs linked by shorter interludes that serve as transitions and/or asides, guiding the listener through a narrative progression of events. The music itself is imaginative and thoughtfully constructed. There is something for everyone in this music—lovers of pop and rock music will enjoy the numerous catchy tunes, and perhaps be reminded here and there of the music of Wilco or Sarah McLachlan, while the classical and contemporary music crowds will be drawn to the strong string writing and orchestration (containing traces of Pärt and Sibelius) and the precise, expressive performances by Signal.
The CD is beautifully designed and packaged—well worth purchasing in hard copy for the liner notes alone—and the sound quality is excellent, with punch that does not sacrifice dynamic range. Those willing to leave assumptions about musical categories at the door will enjoy being wrapped up in the experience that this modern twist on an ancient saga has to offer.