REVIEW: Sarah McLachlan -- The Freedom Sessions

The Freedom Sessions (FS) is a mini-CD with or without a multi-media (MM) portion; I recommend getting the CD+MM one. There are eight listed audio tracks, plus a hidden track, which are all simpler/earlier/different/more relaxed versions of tracks on the full length album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (FTE). It sounds like a loose late-night jam session, winding down near dawn, an intimate listen to the band. I recommend it even if you already have FTE. Here are some rough comments, first some notes made after the first listen, then some more recent detailed track notes after several listens, at different times and in different moods.

First Impressions (notes made after the first listen)

I highly recommend it as another side of Sarah and her s-Instruments, a late night relaxed after-hours session when they let it all hang out. It is best played at high volume, so you can feel the nice live bass waves with cross-coupling between voice, bass, guitar and the low unmasked earth harmonics of the wee hours. On first listen, at good enough volume, in the wee hours, a few tracks really cooked (warmed) me, like a good live show.

At first listen at high volume while I was sitting, "Mary" and the hidden "Hold On" track stood out the most, the "Ol' 55" track is best listened to standing up, preferably with support. Ice, Ice cream, and Elsewhere also were good, Ice made me laugh and cry and rocks like a good jam, Ice Cream has some liqueur and boogie, but the Plenty and first Hold On tracks didn't do as much for me, on first listen. (See below for later positive comments.)

This music is like the last CD for that party that goes to dawn, and you use Ol' 55 for waltzing towards the bedroom after the last guests pass out (in either way). It might sound even better if you have some shared red wine in you and listen at 3 a.m., I haven't tested that yet.

Later Notes (after a few listens)

A. CD-ROM portion

This is not on all versions, just the CD+MM copies, but is definitely worth getting; for not much more money you get a slough of graphic images, video, interview clips, hidden clickable easter eggs, a whole virtual world that you can explore to gain insight into the world of Sarah McLachlan, as filtered and presented with the help of her best friend Crystal Heald. Oh, and it includes a good plug, from the magic s-bus(s), for my home area of Newfoundland as a great place to tour.

It runs on QuickTime on a Macintosh or Windows machine, with at least 8 Mb of RAM. The US release is slightly upgraded from the Canadian release. The record label, Nettwerk, has a FAQ about this, as well as catalog, web site and mailing list info, they can be reached at . The CD + MM version plays fine on an audio player, but you have to skip the first track or you get over 20 minutes of silence or not very interesting static.

B. Audio Portion
As I mentioned above, I love the audio portion, and at first listen all but a few of the tracks stood out. Since then, the remaining tracks have also conquered me, with the last to do so being "Plenty". Now here are some detailed notes on the tracks:
  1. Elsewhere. This is a jammed live version, with a funky rhythm section, sultry night vocals with that ache in the voice that warms you all over. I like it _even_ better than the version on FTE, especially late at night, when FS is the true stereo queen for me. There are waves of bass to warm a corpsicle, some tasty slide, occasional high twangy/jangly acoustic guitar notes to pull at the heartstrings, evoking thoughts of lingerie but not silence :-) .
  2. Plenty. I still like the FTE version slightly better, but the FS one is an interesting alternative. At first the running commentary of backing subdued "doo-doos" and faint catlike calls put me off, and I thought that her vocals, alone, would be preferable. It seems to be a tale of lost love, perhaps even of a fan (you heard me more than I ever could have imagined) but there is a sense of a promise of regrowth from the stillness. "When I looked into your eyes" evokes images of favourite eyes in the past, notably a pair at New Years. On the FS version the vocals dominate, her voice is less masked by the rhythm section. The catlike calls convey a sense of a stray tomcat. Overall it is good, but I might change the opening. At the end there is a promise of new love at the end, the dye-ing day of yellow spring flowers, of swans necking in colours of their choice. :-)
  3. Mary. As I mentioned in the "first impressions" paragraph, this and the final hidden Whole Dawn track were my initial favourites on this CD. I like this version even better than the FTE version. There are beautiful achy-breaky vocals, acoustic guitar with vibrato-rich high notes, piano rhythm. There is some drum programming but it is tasteful and subdued, in fact her voice is dominant and conveys a sense of the earth renewing, as we pull together and reconnect with the newly awakened mother earth (metaphorically speaking). There is a promise of hope beyond the fire, the test, of being set on the right path once again. The piano comes out and gets stronger later in the piece, but the guitar remains in balance, and the voice soars with love, over all.
  4. Good Enough. I like the FTE version slightly better, mainly because I don't like the organs on the FS version; the organs would be more suitable for a choral version though. I would almost prefer an arrangement with a cello or muted trombone, and even sparser foggy arrangement, with her voice soaring over the top. But it is still good, an interesting alternative versus, and her voice is relaxed, and cuts through with a personal feeling, like words spoken at a wedding or funeral (so maybe organs are OK).
  5. Hold On. This is a sparse version, with voice and piano dominant, a bit jazzy, very slow and soothing, suitable for drifting to sleep holding on to a close friend/lover/pet/pillow/etc. At first I didn't like this as much as the FTE version and the hidden FS track, but now I do, for a different mood, and from a different perspective. This really puts me to sleep, but in a good way, and a promise of a new whole dawn, or re-awakening; also with the same promise to those dying of a terminal illness, with the lover and/or voice to guide you through the fire. But (see later), the hidden track version moved me even more, especially on the first listen (see above).
  6. Ice Cream. As the liner notes say, this is a lighter, more live feeling version. It has fudge sauce and funky chocolate sprinkles :-) . I like the playful stand-up-like bass sound, which dances with her voice and grounds it. It is suitable for dancing in the kitchen with your favourite pet. But I think the ending is slightly contrived, would rather imagine a tasty breathless/muffled one with some mmmmmm sound or something, or the crunch of the last bit of cone, for coneheads.
  7. Ice. This is a rocked up version, sounds from the edge, a cool but passionate voice cutting through, with electric guitar distortion showing a curious mixture of pain and pleasure, the sound of glace breaking as we laugh at the random guitar spurts. Her voice has to win a battle with the guitar for control of the river of sound, unlike the other tracks. The rhythm section is a good teamm providing stability, but the main players are voice and guitar here. There are some lyric additions/mods, for the addiction and devotion set.
  8. Ol' 55. This is a great Tom Waits song, interpreted by the band in a late night jam after what sounds like a good party with plenty of red lubricant and uncorkings. It is perfect for dancing lovers into bedrooms after the last non-lover guests leave, in a fast waltz, with a pronounced swing of the hips
    "and I lead the pa"[nty]"raid" :-) .
    But seriously, her voice is again the star, it reeks of emotion, does a few understated low key notes, then, once you are drawn in, washes over you in powerful waves, sets the heart beating true. It was recorded live, with good harmony vocals, rolling organ, and impressive rhythm punctuation to help set the vocal bird up high.
  9. Hold On (hidden track, actually part of Ol' 55 track) This sounds as though it was the original demo, since it has some qualities similar to the Mary track, which was the original demo of Mary. There is some beautiful jangly acoustic guitar, with occasional high notes that force you to sit up and pay attention, punctuated by powerful bass, itchy drums, and a growingly passionate smoky/sultry night bird voice, with tears turning to fire in the throat. The voice doesn't cut loose but the emotion does, spilling like the washing of tears, holding you to your seat, where you sit (singing along) watching your lover and sending waves of hope to him/her as the singer does in the song. So, from the earlier piano version, the listener's viewpoint is moved from the recipient of the song to a participant in the singing, feeling the pain of the singer. Still, there is a promise of a whole dawn, to hold one and all. The ending is abbreviated to "hold on for this is gonna hurt like" with no hell, so there is a promise of hope.

So in conclusion, I highly recommend The Freedom Sessions.