By Michael Pascua, BLOGCRITICS.ORG

There are days when I feel underwhelmed by music, but gems like Rene Marie wake me up from my funk. Her album Voice of My Beautiful Country is a creative take on several classics. The album is split into three sections: the introductory two tracks, the Imagination Medley, and Voice of My Beautiful Country Suite. The first two tracks, “Strange Meadow Lark” and “O Shenandoah,” are strong openings to the album. “Strange Meadow Lark” introduces the strong band whereas “O Shenandoah” showcases Marie’s voice as she easily hits high and low notes. Her voice continues to grow in power as the song progresses. Marie does justice to the nineteenth century traditional song and her performance made me forget the song’s age, as her rendition is fresh and enchanting.

In the Imagination Medley Marie reminds us that there are many songs that have carved the American landscape, and she selects different songs from different centuries to meld all the sounds to one cohesive unit. The second set of songs begins with the two tracks “Imagination” and “Just My Imagination.” The transition between the two songs is flawless and a good reminder that people should listen to her album straight through. Her take on the Motown classic is dynamic; she creates wonderful visuals with her voice that the Temptations’ original version didn’t have. She is respectful to their version, but gives the song a personal twist that honors the original. Marie’s rendition of “White Rabbit” removes part of the psychedelic spirit of the Jefferson Airplane classic, but replaces it with almost Disney-like visuals of Alice in Wonderland.

There are images of a Southern summer in “Drift Away” that Marie manages to remove, leaving a painful longing for freedom. Her vocals on the chorus of the song gives “Drift Away” a jazz spirit along with a spiritual quality; her power swells right until the five minute marker, where she can’t hold in the pain any longer. This hurtful nature makes the song quintessentially Rene Marie and is the representation of oppression. The arrangement of “John Henry” is beautiful; the light accompaniment of the Rodney Jordan’s bow behind Marie gives the song drive. Finally, “Angelitos Negros,” originally by Antonio Machin, closes the Imagination Medley; Rene has some of her strongest vocals as she sings in Spanish. The last minute of the song is an epic climax.

The final section of the album, Voice of My Beautiful Country Suite, covers the direct representation of American Nationalistic pride. All six tracks should be listened to in order as Marie creates the landscape of America. Her take on “America the Beautiful” starts off light, even with Quentin Baxter’s driving drumming in the background, then picks up into a real jazz rendition. The vocal scat section is innovative and shows how much ease Marie has with her voice. I’m confused by the ending to the song, but I’ll accept it because it’s used as a transition into “Drum Battle” and “Piano Blues.”

Marie returns to vocals in “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with more power and strength, as if she knew that the listener would miss her and came back even stronger. The combination of the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” with the arrangement of “Star-Spangled Banner” is something that I didn’t expect to hear, but it is mixed beautifully. The song has a growing nature where Marie gains pride with every word. The drums at the end are a great touch. The album closes with a reprise of “America the Beautiful” and it’s a reminder that Marie understands arrangements and her flow with her band is a joy to listen to. Just her use of “Let us march on to victory” at the album’s end leaves any listener with hope and pride in America.

The simplistic arrangements of Marie’s vocals, Kevin Bales’ piano playing, Jordan on bass, and drummer Baxter ensures not only that Marie’s voice is not drowned out, but shows the masterful teamwork and talent of the rest of the band. The piano playing in “White Rabbit” is commendable as Bales transports you through the colorful world of Alice in Wonderland. Bales’ playing is the highlight of the song. He also shines in “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” matching Marie’s powerful vocal runs. Jordan stands out in “John Henry”–speaking of which, the band’s laughter at the end of “John Henry” is a great snapshot of the joy it must have been recording this album.

Baxter has his own time to shine in “Drum Battle” which incidentally is an interesting strategy to have a track on the album not including Marie at all. Marie and Baxter kept the tracks in a cohesive and smart order. Obviously both “Drum Battle” and “Piano Blues” cannot stand on their own, but fit beautifully between “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”

Traditionally, I’d suggest specific tracks that stand out, but because of Rene Marie’s careful arranging skills, all of the tracks are lovely to listen to. The best of the Imagination Medley has to be “Drift Away” because of its genius arrangement. As for the Voice of My Beautiful Country Suite, “Life Every Voice and Sing” is creative. Either the Imagination or Voice sections could have stood powerfully as individual EPs, but instead the listeners are treated to a wonderful album. Marie knows what she wants, and she arranges everything beautifully from her own vocals to the bass line. Listening to the whole album gives me high hopes for her next album Black Lace Freudian Slip.

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