Musical Mysticism of Karen Beth

"Night Rider," the opening number on Karen Beth's new album, Magic, sets the mood and shucks earthbound boots for a bodiless glide into Dreamtime. A feathery caress of keyboard spreads a buoyant carpet for the toe-dancing notes of Beth's distinctive vocal, which seems to leave her body as scandently as the night riding spirit of her lyric. Immediately the artist displays an unusual attribute, both as writer and performer, in touching naturally upon subjects such as astral projection without sounding at all contrived; complimenting the mystical quality of the content with the tenor of the music.

The song's subject matter has spawned many a lively debate and reaches back in tradition to ancient Egypt and through considerable Biblical reference; appearing often in such unlikely literary contexts as Jack London (The Star Rover) or Ernest Hemingway, who described his impressions of having been hit by shrapnel in World War I as "my soul or something coming out of my body, like you'd pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner. It flew around and then came back and went in again, and I wasn't dead any more."

In a cross-cultural study of out-of-body experience conducted in the late 1970s, Professor Dean Shiels of the University of Wisconsin found a 95% universality of OOBE beliefs in non-Western cultures and a striking consistency in their detail. Our own culture takes skeptical comfort in defining OOBEs as a Peter Pan creation of mind and imagination, as did Dr. Susan Blackmore in her 1990 study Beyond the Body but laboratory studies like those of the University of California's Dr. Charles Tart, whose astral projecting subject showed out of the ordinary brain waves as she correctly reported the time on a clock out of view from her sleeping site and a random 5-digit number likewise unseeable, present odds so immense that they trouble comfortable imagination.

The point of bringing all of this up is that such basic understandings of spirit as the animating difference between life and death have profound influence upon perspective in general. Life experience takes on an entirely different cast from such a viewpoint and, as Beth brings her own personal colorations to folk tradition in music, these considerations come along. She can sing persuasively of leaving her body because it is not speculation; it's sincerity.

"I remember this almost dying experience," Beth said in review of one of her earliest memories. "I was allergic to ether and having my tonsils out and my heart stopped beating. I have this definite memory of my soul or spirit leaving my body; traveling up and out and meeting- now I see them as guides...They told me it wasn't time and that I had to go back. So, I went back and the doctor was beating on my chest, trying to get my heart started. My parents told me I was dreaming but I know that I wasn't." Karen was three years old.

More deliberate attempts at visiting this realm came much later but had foundation in that experience: "In some way, I've felt this contact with the other side or angels or guides all my life. I've wanted to capture some of that positive spirit in almost all of my songs; a feeling there's more to life than just our daily living; that there's worlds beyond and below and around us..."

The gentle seasonal appreciations "Must Be Spring" and "Summer," the latter an accordion-accompanied rumination on an all too fleeting time, speak an appreciation of earthly attachment with an analogous hint of transformation. "Fiddler's Tune" and "Liz Is Leaving" has Beth easing off banjo notes that would clunk in other hands; an encounter and a disencounter with Fooch Fischetti supplying violin on the former tune.

Beth's songs are watercolors of delicate and subtle shading which feature occasional overlapping vocal rounds as in the self-duet on "Light of My Heart," for which bassist and studio psychologist Scott Petito provides exceptionally sensitive support, and the swaying lean into "the other side" which weaves in harmonies by Miriam Berg, Susan Phillips and Ellen Reitemeyer. Brian Melick deserves a bow for his adhesive percussion on the title tune, which takes us again to kingdoms (queendoms, actually) outside of time, and on the lightly grooving, dreamlike "Violet Eyes" on which Petito tips in flavorful synthesized vibes as well as a delicious stretch of deep yawning bass lines.

There's an organic feel on this last cut as the melody guides the lyric with a natural ease not quite achieved in a portion of "All That Is" where there is a sense of the lyric overguiding melody, though not quite enough to sink the flow.

"One World" is a plaintive meditation on agitations of the world from which even mystics cannot hide and "Solstice" is a superbly contemplative instrumental with an almost pre-baroque feel and strong counterpoint finely accented by Layne Redmond's frame drum.

Beth associates the title song with Halloween in Woodstock, when she feels "even many adults take the whole idea of transformation seriously- being something other than what we are in ordinary life-" and appreciates enough to have timed her autumn tour of southern states so as to be back in town for the holiday. Career priorities, hmm? "The Dream" is an enigmatic song on many levels which Beth revealed linked to her feelings about the music industry with positive resolution about her place in that world.

There's a unity to the sensibility of songs here which is pure Karen Beth. Magic is sixth in a line of her albums reaching back into the vinyl age and starting with some releases by a major record company which must have won an ineptness award for their promotion department. Each of them display some degree of that elusively mystical quality so apparent here but, more so, a building legacy of an unappreciated but very authentic voice of contemporary folk music.

-Gary Alexander