Madison Violet (Brenley MacEachern, left, and Lisa MacIsaac): All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…

The Sound Of Your Own Heart
By David McGee

Madison Violet
True North

Rarely has an album so tenaciously subdued seemed so electric. The Canadian duo known as Madison Violet—Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac (sister of the duly celebrated fiddler extraordinaire Ashley MacIsaac)—ditch the alt-country of their previous (and second) album, Caravan, and turn fiercely inward, lyrically and musically. Their lovely, fragile voices betray influences ranging from the Scottish highlands to the Appalachians (not so far apart, when you think about it, except geographically); their enveloping melancholy evokes Lucinda Williams’s awe at seeing God’s hand moving mercilessly across the land and lives; their lyrics—now elliptical, now bluntly and personally piercing—are suffused with silences, too. In sum, No Fool For Trying sounds as if it might be an aural counterpart to an Ingmar Bergman film, saying as much in its pauses and hesitations and in its doggedly restrained musical accompaniment as Bergman’s tortured characters do in their lacerating internal monologues. You might think the clouds have lifted when you come to the tenth of eleven songs here, “The Best Part of Your Love,” and you hear some lighthearted acoustic guitar strumming and long, leisurely fiddle lines, as well as a sprinkling of easygoing banjo plunking, but when you step back from the duo’s smooth, lilting harmonizing, you realize they’re singing from a place of abject sorrow about a hopeless love affair with a fellow who’s wed to the drink—as they state with thudding finality on the final lyric, “but I’ve been hurtin’, hurtin’/long before the day gets on.”

The template for examining these states of being is set from the first, faint notes of the album opening “The Ransom,” in which those notes are so distant you’re not sure if you’re hearing the recording or ambient noise in the room or space you’re in when you cue up the disc. At first blush the song seems to be the lament of performers living on meager means from show to show—“the money ain’t comin’ in like I hoped”—and weary from too many “motor court hotels” that “confiscate my soul.” The gals query plaintively, “Darlin’ please, can we go home?” but it’s not really a question; it’s a done deal, because home seems to be the one place offering solace. But six songs in, on “Hallways Of the Eagle,” the stage is the focal point of another lonely missive, or seems to be, anyway: “Will they all cry at the show/if I wear my best prettys/and I promise not to go/no I can’t perform tonight/’cause the stage is cold with fright.” MacIsaac’s fiddle could not sound more forlorn coming after this fearful declaration, and now it’s clear what’s going on: neither of these songs is about performing for others, per se, except in the sense of interacting in a relationship gone awry. All the world’s a stage, you see, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances…

Madison Violet, ‘Small of My Heart’ live, a winsome memory of a home town forever changed from what it once was…

And so those exits and entrances are documented in bittersweet memories set to discreet, atmospheric sonics designed to mirror and/or enlarge the narrative arc—the way producer Les Cooper’s twangy electric guitar and MacIsaac’s keening fiddle show up at the pivotal emotional junctures of “Crying,” for instance, to provide additional ballast to MacEachern’s spiteful jab at a newly disenfranchised significant other: “Now that you’re gone/I hope you get a chance/to sit down with God/I hope you get a chance/to question the man in cloth/it’s not a bad world brother…”; the same duo’s acoustic guitar and mandolin, respectively, softly trotting alongside the vocals in “No Fool For Trying,” as MacEachern and MacIsaac tell of a lover suddenly vanished and try to convince themselves, in the most beautiful, comforting harmonies, that the effort was worth the heartbreaking outcome. And on an album centered on arrivals and departures on the bigger stage, the small combo—drums, piano, slide guitar, bass—establishing so poignant an ensemble moan behind the vocals enhances the searing, winsome memory of a home town forever changed from what it once was by underscoring the singers’ resigned acceptance of their altered landscape, in a truly tender and sincere love song, “Small of My Heart.”

How fitting, then, for Madison Violet to close on a Rubber Soul-ish optimistic note, in “Time and Tide,” a bright (on MV’s terms), folky duet anticipating the unfettered life and the promise of sunnier horizons on the road ahead, as MacIsaac’s briskly fingerpicked acoustic guitar and Victor Bateman’s softly thumping upright bass suggest movement—deliberate and unabating—toward something, unnamed, even unknown, but felt in a soul’s freedom to roam and seek: “Some’ll while their miles in chasing/some are gone too soon/never mind ‘cause the dime ain’t shaping you.” The two singers harmonize sweetly on falsetto “oohh-oohh-ooh”s thrice, and then it stops, as unassumingly as the album started. No guessing about the sound you’re hearing now: It’s what’s in your heart.

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A short course in Madison Violet history, wry and deadpan, from the principals’ childhood to the present

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