First things first: Mystic Folk Opera is neither folk nor opera. The band accurately describes itself on Facebook as “soulful blues rock with a progressive bent.”
The blues is certainly MFO’s musical foundation, but it’s a rocked-up version of the blues, definitely more Led Zeppelin than B.B. King. And there are definitely progressive influences at work here, but not the note-dense variety that one usually associates with ’70s prog-rock like Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Instead, the band goes for the subtler layered atmospherics of Pink Floyd and The Moody Blues, choosing slowly building moods over grandiose displays of virtuosity.
But what really makes “A Book of Painted Sighs” something truly special and unique is the amazing vocal interplay between the band’s three singers, Kristin DiCara, “Cheeks” (aka Nathan McClellan) and Elisha Frank.
The CD starts off in suitably Floydian fashion with a sound collage composed of frenetic violins interspersed with traffic and train effects that build in intensity until morphing into the opening ringing chord of “Tail Lights.” The rhythm section of bassist Bob Mills and drummer Rich Cantz provides a solid foundation for the breathy vocals of DiCara, who alluringly coos out a tale of a journey west by car. Whether the driver is embarking on a lonely quest or making a great escape is up to the listener to decide.
The song is equal parts hope and melancholy, sounding sexy and sad at the same time (and MFO definitely gets bonus points for name-checking The Scorpions). Cheeks’ guitar work is notable as well, not just for what he plays, but also for what he doesn’t play. He lets the chords ring out, allowing spaces to form in the song where the mood can build. When the crescendos come, the effect is that much more affecting.
“I Am the Rain” sees MFO shifting into a more up-tempo gear, with some raw guitar, charming harmonies and a very subtle trad-country influence. “For Pity and Contempt” has a strong Zeppelin feel to the music, while DiCara and Elisha Frank harmonize like Ann and Nancy Wilson in their prime. Some nice tempo changes and ethereal background vocals are the highlights of “Sighs of the Sky,” and a unique lead vocal from Cheeks with counterpoint singing from DiCara and Frank make “The Last Days of Jose” the perfect album closer.
But by far, the stand-out track is “As Sure As Your.” It starts off as a fairly traditional blues-rock ballad but builds in vocal and emotional intensity, with Cheeks, DiCara and Frank singing as if their lives depended on it, all three turning in vocal performances that are nothing short of astounding. This is definitely the song that will stay with you long after the last notes of the album have faded away.
Mystic Folk Opera has created the kind of album that demands your attention. It’s not the sort of record that’s suitable for background music while you concentrate on something else. So do the band a favor: Buy the record, sit down, put headphones on and allow yourself to be transported. You won’t be disappointed.
Check out the band’s Facebook page or e-mail [email protected] for information on getting your copy of the album. Catch the band live on Nov. 8 at Empire Dine and Dance in Portland.
Rick Johnson is a freelance writer and radio host from Westbrook. He can be reached at: