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When Small Birds Sweetly Sing is the second album from the duo of Susie Burke and David Surette, though over their twenty-year collaboration they have each contributed to each other’s solo efforts. The album has been in progress for some time, and it has a pleasing unforced quality about it.
It opens with a majestic anthem of friendship, “I Will be Here”. In advance of the first lyrics we hear Susie’s powerful hum riding over the chords, and we know she means business. You don’t want to mess with her, as she goes on to declare most eloquently her determination to stand by and stand true.
The title of the album is a single line in the song “The Seeds of Love”. The song as it turns out is mostly garden imagery – (no more birds), but it’s quite lovely. Of course it’s not really about a garden or birds, but about love. The lyrics are intensely allegorical, but in the end you sort of know what the song is about even if you don’t quite understand how you got there. And a message of hope:
“ Come all you broken-hearted lovers
Who still can feel the pain
The grass that once was trodden under foot
Give it time, it will rise again”
When I first listen to the song “Richard Cote” I felt a touch of uncertainty. It’s about a French Canadian immigrant who, working on the power lines above Niagara Falls, falls off a beam, and is saved when his wedding ring catches on a nail. The story seemed unlikely, and the interjection of just a few random lines in French seemed a bit contrived. But as I’ve listened to the song a few times, it has grown on me, to become one of my favorites on the album. The snippets of French really convey effectively what might otherwise require a more detailed explanation, and the tale is both an adventure story and a love song. What’s more, it is apparently true – the story was put to song by Pete Sutherland, who (no surprise) found just the right notes, and just the right words.
Jean Ritchie’s “Now Is The Cool of the Day” is given an intensely mystical, orchestral arrangement that for this listener conjured up a hybrid image of Jefferson Airplane and Lorena McKennitt. It is a haunting modal rendering that, in less skilled hands, could leave the listener more disturbed and less enriched.
“All My Life” has similar qualities to the opening number, “I Will Be Here”, though it is clearly about a more romantic love. Pardon us if we project, but given that Susie and David’s partnership is marital as well as musical, this seems the most personal song on the album. “ . . . For as long as I live, and with all my might, that I have to give, all my love, all my light” with some modest but heartfelt harmonies from David, and then some intricate lovely mandolin work from the same man – nobody can play the mandolin that tenderly unless they are in love.
So, let’s talk about the musicianship on this album. David Surette, in addition to mandolin, provides the most exquisite accompaniment on guitar, cittern, and bouzouki. There is one purely instrumental track; “Blind Mary/The Rambling Pitchfork”. David is such an extraordinaire musician that it’s easy to be initially unimpressed – his playing feels so laid back that the skill behind it is not that conspicuous. But don’t mistake laid-back for lethargic – under the subtlety is a solid drive. His choice of notes and styling reveal not only a mastery of the instrument, but a refined artistry in complementing his fellow musicians. After 20 years of musical collaboration (not to mention being under the same roof for most of that time), it may not surprise us that David can accompany Susie with such insightful playing, but it’s a blessing their fans should not take for granted.
By contrast, there has always been an urgent tension in Susie’s voice that makes her singing so compelling. What stands out on this recording is an evolved confidence and maturity – I feel like her voice has been enriched by a more recently acquired wisdom. It’s the kind of thing we all might hope for with whatever our particular skills are, and so it is nourishing to experience it here.
The album has a remarkable supporting cast: Kent Allyn (bass, piano, harmony vocals), Joyce Anderson (fiddle) and Jeremiah McLane (accordion) Everyone’s participation dovetails neatly into the whole: there’s no flashy showmanship here, just good solid interaction from very high-level musicians. Susie and David choose not to include any of their own compositions, instead choosing to cover (or in the case of “Richard Cote”, debut) the work of other songwriters (see complete listing below).
I found myself listening to this recording more times than I would have expected. I finally figured out why: the songs collected here invite us to live. They celebrate the joy and the power of love. In a remarkable call-to-action song, “This is the Year”, we hear “This is the year I take my intentions, turn them away from distraction and talk.” The song has an “If I Had A Hammer” kind of vigor, and every time I listen to it I feel a little bit stronger.
When Small Birds Sweetly Sing can be ordered directly via check-in-the mail:
($15 + $1.50 shipping = $16.50)
P.O. Box 433
South Berwick ME 03908
Or online from CD Baby.
I Will Be Here – Pierce Pettis
Hurting Sure – Mark Simos
The Seeds of Love – trad. Eng
This Is the Year – David Roth
Richard Cote – Pete Sutherland
Beau Rossignol – trad. Fr. Canadian
My Love Is in America – Chris Leslie
Blind Mary/The Rambling Pitchfork – Turlough O’Carolan, trad. Irish
Now Is the Cool of the Day – Jean Ritchie
I’m Not that Girl – Stephen Schwarz
All My Life – Pat Donahue
Fashioned in the Clay – Elmer Beal