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Sometimes, all too rarely, you hear an album for the first time, and your ears prick up, your heart begins to beat a bit faster, and your mind resumes a long forgotten conversation with itself on the eternal questions of truth, beauty and the human condition. With each song, you think, well if this one is disappointing, that is OK because all the others have been so good; but every song is a new revelation, another exquisite, hypnotic, multi-faceted gem in the jewel case. Such is Incantation at the Golden Hour, DC-based singer/songwriter Mercedes Mill's astonishing debut album.
The first thing that you notice is her voice. It rings with a crystal clarity, ethereal yet firmly ballasted in the secular, equally suited to the vaulted heights of a cathedral as to the smoke-clouded darkness of a jazz club. It is not hyperbole to say Mercedes Mill has the talent, skill and emotional range of iconic vocalists like Janis Joplin or Nina Simone. Her voice whispers like the wind through the autumn leaves, wails like a freight train in the dead of a black night, floats like fog rising from the sea, dips and soars like a bird heralding the newly broken day. She knows how to twist a line for maximum dramatic effect, when to lay it down easy and when to unleash the full power of her voice.
Next, you find yourself humming a refrain from one song, and then another. Songs like "Back to You," "Our Love is a Haunted Place," and especially, "No Stranger" resound with gorgeous, irresistible hooks. Skillfully arranged and produced by Mill and Matthew Leonard, who apparently has never met an instrument that he did not like, every tink of the finger cymbals and warble of the tin whistle enhances and heightens the emotional impact of the songs, no two of which are alike.
The title track is a work song with a tempo to keep the needles sewing at a Shaker quilting bee, the backs bending in the wheat fields of Nebraska, or the office worker in a sterile cubicle punching at the keyboard. “Kiss Me Before I Sleep” evokes a whiskey-soaked saloon, men brawling over cards as the bar room piano plays on and the singer sends one out to her outlaw lover. The harmonica rises up like smoke from a campfire in the honky-tonk ballad “No Stranger,” the long twang of the slide guitar a tumbleweed rolling through the song, which fades away with a vibrating chord like a snake slithering away through dried grass stalks. The tolling bells that open "Sister Grace" morph into the pealing chords of an electric guitar and then into a crashing piano and moaning organ to tell a gothic story of a woman deranged by some dark, past sin.
Finally, you begin to listen to the lyrics. Phrases like "Tucked into my rocky bed on the moon" and "my heart jumps just like a loaded gun" and "'til the paperboy comes at dawn" intrigue like the opening lines of a great short story. As you listen more closely, you find meditations on love, alienation, and resilience picked out in exquisite poetry. "A touch of pastis at Le Deux Magots, then we'll sit by the Seine in the fog" in a flirtatious romp through "Paris in the Fall," which rollicks with cafe-society bonhomie. "For ever since antiquity, we've tried to love our enemies," chills down the spine in "Wine Dark Sea." The poignant "Two Solitudes" describes the arc of true love, "Let's play like we're six years old, Then take it nice and slow, Adagissimo, then allegro, allegro." Evocative and lyrical, each song draws you into another mythical journey, another saga of the human condition.
"Some people try to create, some to destroy," Mill sings in the opening track, "Our Love is a Haunted Place." Lucky for us, she has created. With songs that haunt and a voice that uplifts, Mercedes Mill brings new truth to age-old stories of love, yearning, heartbreak and hope.