Lilith founder sets her heart free

Review: `Mirrorball' catches Sarah McLachlan at her most energetic, in a live performance. McLachlan's live recording is full of energy

June 15, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Although it probably wasn't intended as such, founding the Lilith Fair was probably the smartest career move Sarah McLachlan could have made.

Before Lilith, McLachlan was a marginal act at best, a smart, emotionally eloquent singer/songwriter from Canada whose heartfelt, energetic concert performances had earned her a small but fervent following. Now, as the all-female Lilith Fair heads off for its third (and reputedly final) tour around America, McLachlan is a bona fide pop star, with an instantly recognizable name and several Top-10 hits to her credit.

As such, it's tempting to take "Mirrorball" (Arista 19094, arriving in stores today) simply as an attempt to cash in on the singer's ever-broadening popularity. A concert recording offering 14 of the best-known songs in McLachlan's catalog, it seems the perfect souvenir for those who loved her at Lilith Fair and want to keep the good feeling going.

That's not a complaint, exactly, because McLachlan is certainly a strong enough performer to justify making a live album.

In fact, there are aspects to some of these remakes that actually make them superior to the originals. But anyone expecting "Mirrorball" to be a true follow-up to her last album, 1997's "Surfacing," is going to be disappointed.

Then again, so will those who have come to see McLachlan strictly in the soft, tuneful terms of her radio hits. Granted, nobody's ever going to confuse her with Courtney Love, but McLachlan really is a rocker at heart, and the best thing about many of the performances on "Mirrorball" is the way they put the teeth back into her biggest hits.

Perhaps that's why the album opens with "Building a Mystery, one of the strongest songs off of "Surfacing." Even though the live version relies on the same flowing, mid-tempo groove that powered the single, the energy level is noticeably different. When McLachlan sings the line, "You woke up screaming loud," there's enough grit in her voice and punch in the drums that the phrase is transformed, moving from description to evocation.

It's as if McLachlan had tired of metaphor and wanted us to feel the song in all its raw, emotional glory.

Likewise, there's a greater sense of physicality to "Possession," as McLachlan's band pumps the trance-like pulse and cranks the guitars. Even the singer herself gets off a scream or two -- although, typically, the song's most arresting moment comes when the band stops dead, and she whispers the next lyric into the silence.

Not every moment on "Mirrorball" owes its strength to having turned the power up. "Adia," for example, retains the deliciously dreamy feel of the single when McLachlan slips into falsetto during the "We are born innocent" chorus.

But where the studio version sustained that lush, languid mood through to the end, the live take throws new light on the song. There, what we hear is anguish that lurks beneath the lyrics, with McLachlan's voice breaking at just the right points to make each statement seem like a plea.

To be sure, the album also provides its share of warm and fuzzy moments, as McLachlan's velveteen alto snuggles up against the softly strummed guitars and cushiony back-up vocals.

Still, the overriding quality this album conveys is, well, liveliness, as McLachlan's vivacious performance brings out the best in these songs. Listening to her here, it's easy to understand what has made Lilith Fair so special -- and why we're likely to miss it if, indeed, it does go away next summer.

Sarah McLachlan

"Mirrorball" (Arista 19094)

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 6/15/99

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