Songs of Zion
Fiddlesticks: Return to Nauvoo
Imagine a lazy sunday afternoon in a sort of cool early summer, and you and your sweetheart are sitting on a grassy hill overlooking the city of Nauvoo, and there's a gentle breeze blowing out across the Mississippi. Maybe there's some bugs buzzing nearby and there's some birds chirping. The clear and easy singing, the rich violin, the gentle guitar... This album is the soundtrack to that afternoon.
This CD is both very typical of Fiddlesticks, and also very different for them. The folk and acoustic instrumentation (fiddle, guitar, bodran, flute, hammered dulcimer, cello, etc...) is what the Davis Family are known for all over the west (indeed, over the country). But while many of the other CD's of theirs I've listened to make me want to tap my foot or get up and dance a jig or a reel, this one makes me want to lay back and smile.
This collection is also by far their most "Mormon" of all. In fact, it was planned that way. It's made up entirely of hymn renditions from the Nauvoo period of the history of the Saints. And as such, with more traditional harmonies, instrumentation, and in some cases, more traditional melodies, even, it gave a whole new feel to these familiar songs. It was interesting to hear "All is Well/Come Come Ye Saints" sung with such a freeing, lively lilt, instead of the grandeur that the MoTab Choir has brought to the song. And the alternate melody and arrangement of "Praise to the Man" was so deep and saddening, I could imagine their sorrow and mourning to hear of the martyrdom of their beloved Joseph.
Their arrangement of "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" was tasty. Unfortunately, they didn't include all the verses, so one has to sort of fill in the story line from memory. But that's not hard for someone that's been exposed to it all their life. And fortunately they didn't include all the verses, because, I have to admit, that can also get tedious at times.
A couple of things struck me as I was listening to these tunes. One thought was just how powerful and deep the doctrine was in some of these early hyms of Zion. Like "The Earth Was Once a Garden Place" spoke of Adam-Ondi-Ahman and the glories of the Garden of Eden. "If You Could Hie to Kolob" contemplates the true depth of the meaning of "eternity". Even "Praise to the Man" bears testimony of the eternal nature of Joseph's calling and life, and the endlessness of the Priesthood. We don't talk much in those terms anymore. We still believe it, but we don't talk about it or sing about it much.
Another thing that I got from it was just how simple and pure and beautiful their melodies were. As a modern songwriter, I could learn a lot from them.
Fiddlesticks did a great job of delivering them, too. I've seen them live, and I've heard them on CD, and I can't help but wonder how much of it is scored, planned, and memorized and how much of it is improvised. The harmonies (like the ones in "Amazing Grace") are too fresh and perfect to be left to chance, but there's a spontenaity that can't be found in music that's all pre-arranged. I've tried while I've been listening to this CD, and I can't find the lines between.
For an old rocker, all too often, when I read that a CD is "relaxing" or "peaceful", especially among LDS artist, my first reaction is to assume it's another mormon sleeping pill. Fiddlesticks has found a way to ease my body and my soul while engaging my heart and my mind. "Return to Nauvoo" is very relaxing, but it's far far from dull.