Lisa Moscatiello has one of those voices that makes you stop whatever might be distracting you and say, "Who IS that?!" I first heard her in 2001 during a series of free lunchtime concerts sponsored by my hometown of Rockville, Maryland; the only things I knew about her were that she had graduated from high school the same year I did and she reminded the writer who was promoting the lunchtime series of k.d. lang. I suppose that based purely on vocal range, the comparison is apt: lang and Moscatiello both sing primarily in their alto register but can stretch and hold glorious round high notes. And at the time, Moscatiello sported a short haircut somewhat reminiscent of lang's.
Yet the range of Moscatiello's musical interests spans American folk, torch songs, traditional Celtic and French ballads, New Orleans jazz, musical theater, techno, and occasional classical and classic rock -- like her soaring cover of the B-52s' "Revolution Earth," which she performed that afternoon in Rockville and recorded with the New York-based Celtic fusion band Whirligig, with whom she often performs. In the sweltering outdoor arena where I first heard Mosciatello, she played mostly songs from her contemporary folk CD Second Avenue, including her own quirky "Fugitive" and a keening acoustic version of the Eurythmics' "Love Is A Stranger." In the Unitarian church where I next heard her, she opened with Dave Swarbrick and Richard Thompson's "Now Be Thankful" and played her own music to accompany a poem by W.B. Yeats that she set to music.
On both occasions Moscatiello was accompanied on cello by Fred Lieder, while Dave Chappell played guitars outdoors and Sue Richards played harp in the church. All of these musicians appear on Moscatiello's studio recordings. So do the phenomenally gifted mandolin player, Robin Bullock, and Lisa's former colleague from The New St. George, electric bass player Rico Petruccelli, as well as Lisa's brother, pianist Chris Moscatiello. Though the singer appears as part of several groups -- she, Richards and Lieder perform as The Rosedale Trio, she sings with Bev Stanton's Arthur Loves Plastic, and she travels with Whirligig -- her longtime collaboration with these various musicians lends each show a balance of polished familiarity and dynamic change.
Her solo CDs seem more subdued, which offers the benefit of really being able to appreciate the precision instrumentation, but anyone who had never seen Moscatiello live would have a harder time grasping the incandescent energy she brings to the stage. Innocent When You Dream, Moscatiello's debut solo album, takes its title and much of its conflicted sensibility from Tom Waits' sorrowful song about loves betrayed. Whereas Waits sings it with a frustrated growl and dramatic instrumentation, Moscatiello performs it as a lullaby-waltz with restrained clarinet and strings (the song retains "her" as the subject of romantic interest). The title song follows the romantic "When You Are Old," Moscatiello's melancholy melody for Celtic harp and viola da gamba to accompany the Yeats lyric.
Many of the songs on Innocent When You Dream seesaw between sweet or passionate sensibilities and much darker emotions. "Dame Lombarde," a medieval folk song sung entirely in French, builds to a slow crescendo as it tells the story of an adulterous wife who meets a predictable ending. (In concert, Moscatiello recounts the story with good humor: "Then do you think they went for marriage counseling?") The traditional "House Carpenter," sometimes known as "Demon Lover," has a story and sound reminiscent of "The Devil Went Down To Georgia," with a less-happy ending -- women rarely beat the Devil at his game in these old songs, do they? Ironically, Moscatiello's cover of Janis Ian's "His Hands," accompanied only by acoustic guitar, tells a more distressing tale of a woman who chooses the wrong lover -- "His hands, they never marked my face."
Against these, the quite "If He Were You" --in a cabaret mode -- and country-inflected "Save Everything" offer wistfulness and hope, while the Scottish ballad "Bogie's Bonnie Belle" mixes electric strings with button accordion and cittern to create a sound that is at once nostalgic and upbeat. Other songs on the album feature unconventional mixes of instruments, but it's Moscatiello's sterling voice, fully engaged with the songs she's singing, that's most remarkable.
Second Avenue features more original music by the singer and a more upbeat sound, though the themes of love and loss remain dominant. Many of the songs offer mandolin, bouzouki and harp along with electric and slide guitars and contemporary drum arrangements. The jarring dissonance of the first number, "Fugitive," prepares the listener for a first-person narration by a serial killer. The title track uses an upbeat electronic sound to take a good-humored but sad look at the vagaries of romance: "Love is an affliction, love is a disease/Robs you of your dignity and brings you to your knees."
The one traditional song on this CD, "Lass of Glenshee," begins with only Moscatiello's voice, joined by quiet harp and cello before a gorgeous soprano sax solo that provides a counterpoint to the singer's lower voice. Moscatiello's own "Bed By the Window" and "Night Bird" each provides a different contemporary folk sound -- the former with delicate guitar, the latter with keyboards, cello and harp, both offering optimistic melodies to offset the conflicted desire to move on expressed in the lyrics.
Second Avenue also contains Moscatiello's cover of "Love Is A Stranger" and a lush interpretation of Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away." But the unforgettable gem here is Jesse Winchester's "Biloxi," which as Moscatiello explains in concert, she first learned for a clothing-optional folk festival because of the lyric, "We are splashing naked in the water" (and adds, "Hey, I really needed the money!"). The music expresses a slow Southern drawl with electric strings and harmonica, and the singer makes you believe she's breathing in the mist-filled salt air ("A boy will dig a pool beside the ocean, he sees creatures from a dream on the water...").
The winner of more than twenty Washington, DC-area music awards (WAMMIES), Moscatiello's music reflects the influence of her childhood favorites Sarah Vaughan, Joan Baez and Puccini, as well as the Irish traditional music she has played since she was a teenager, and the jazz and musical theater she performed in college and afterwards. No matter what she's singing, you believe that she is the narrator of the song, whether the narrator is a modern woman like herself or a man who lived across the sea several hundred years ago. But it's her voice that really keeps you entranced. Call it folk, call it blues, call it jazz, call it torch, call it Celtic, call it New Age...call it sublime.Learn about Lisa Moscatiello here.
Green Man Reviews