Love shines through on lullaby album

MUSIC REVIEW

December 11, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Look in the dictionary, and what you'll learn about lullabies i only half the story. "A soothing song to put a child to sleep," is the way the Oxford American Dictionary defines it, and while that makes for a fairly apt description of what a lullaby does, it says nothing of what such songs are about. In other words, it sees the lullaby as being all form, with negligible content.

True, some lullabies do offer more melody than meaning. "Brahms' Lullaby" is a perfect example, a tune so functional and familiar it hardly needs words to get its go-to-sleep message across. Others owe their power to tradition, having been absorbed into a cultural consciousness through generations of use.

But the most resonant lullabies are far more personal than that. Because these are songs not about sleep, but the love a mother feels for her babies -- songs very much like the ones on " 'Til Their Eyes Shine" (Columbia 52412).

Conceived as a benefit project for the Voiceless Victims program of the Institute for Intercultural Understanding, the album looks like just another high-concept charity effort, more notable for its contributors -- a cast including Rosanne Cash, Gloria Estefan, Carole King, Dionne Warwick and Mary-Chapin Carpenter -- than its content.

Listen, though, and what you'll hear is as personal and powerful as any of these singers' best work. Cash's "Carrie," for example, is a touching testament to the magic of maternal bonding, blessed with a comfortingly quiet melody and a typically unaffected performance. Likewise, King's "If I Didn't Have You to Wake Up To" perfectly combines personal emotion and professional craft, fleshing out its sly, soulful verses with mom-ish lyrics like "I know that every mother thinks her child is the prettiest one/But you've got a smile that can't be refused/It even brightens up the sun."

Although most of the songs here are self-penned, that doesn't mean the few cover songs are any less from-the-heart. Indeed, Emmylou Harris handily claims King's "Child of Mine" as her own, while Brenda Russell puts so much of herself into "Dream" that it almost comes as a shock to see that the song belongs to Karla Bonoff. And how many singers could claim a folk song as completely as Maura O'Connell does "Dun do Shuile," a traditional Gaelic lullaby that here seems as much a part of her as her name?

Still, the album is at its best when it manages to convey the sort of unexpected surprises parenthood itself often brings.

"Lullaby for a Doll," by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, is a perfect example. At first, it seems a song about growing up, in which Kate first recalls playing with dolls as a child, then tells how, years later, she found her own daughter playing the same games. But just when you think the song has come full circle, the McGarrigles slip in a final verse, one in which the mother notes that real babies aren't at all like dolls:

You don't fall asleep after I've kissed you good night

And unlike your doll, you won't stay small

You'll grow and grow too soon to take flight.

It's a perfect lullaby moment -- at once sweet, assuring and affectionate. Enough, in fact, to make your eyes shine, too.

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