"Earthly Delights" is Daria Kulesh's third solo album. You would be forgiven if, after a casual listen to her first album, "Eternal Child", you formed the opinion that that was just an un-themed collection of songs, covering topics as varied as hairdressers, snow, and mirages, but on a deeper listen you would realise that all the songs on "Eternal Child" were linked, as they were all based on people that she knew. They were all personal songs.
It would be much harder not to notice that her second album, "Long Lost Home", was themed. The theme was massive: Stalin's attempt at genocide of the Ingush nation.
So where do you go for your third album? From friends and family to breathing life back into an entire country, you'd need some massive concept to follow her first two. And of course, Daria hasn't let us down. The horizons of this new album have ballooned even further. The concept behind "Earthly Delights" is you, me, Daria, indeed all of humanity, along with the drives and ambitions that motivate us all.
The title, "Earthly Delights" is taken from a triptych painting by Hieronymus Bosch, originally known as "La Pintura del Madroño", now better known as "The Garden Of Earthly Delights". Scholars, to this day, argue over their interpretations of Bosch's painting. There are very strong Biblical overtones to the painting: when the left and right panels are folded forward, the cover reveals an image of creation of the Earth prior to the creation of humanity. The lefthand inside panel depicts the Garden of Eden, the righthand inside panel depicts the Last Judgement, and the main body features, well, who knows? There are animals, weird structures and many naked people in various peculiar poses. Whether this is a dire warning to humanity against debauchery, or a celebration of the pleasures of the flesh, nobody really knows.
The cover of "Earthly Delights", in homage to Bosch, is triptych in form: the lyrics booklet fits in the left hand panel, with the CD slotted in the right hand panel. The lyrics booklet and the cover are also full of Daria's artwork, all her own interpretations of scenes from Bosch's work.
With all of humanity being such an overarching concept for an album, Daria has drawn her inspiration from a wide range of material including mythology, fairy tales, history, poetry and opera. The songs include a cover of Richard Fariña's "The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood", an Irish standard: Percy French's "The Pride Of Petravore", (also known as "Eileen Og", or "McGrath The Cattle-jobber"), two of Daria's songs that were previously released on "Waters So Deep..." by Kara, Daria's old band and, in addition, her recent single, "Vasilisa".
In the fourth century an Egyptian Christian monk called Evagrius Ponticus produced a list of seven or eight evil thoughts that one had to overcome to be virtuous. Over the years the concept was adopted by the Catholic church as 'the seven deadly sins': pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Daria views these, along with ambition, joy, sorrow, love and all other such emotions, not as things that we should avoid, but as things we should delight in, as they are what make us what we are. There's only one sin we should avoid: 'No deadlier sin than a heart without love.' It is no coincidence that two of the songs on this album include deadly sins in their titles.
Paradoxically, for an album celebrating the human condition, the first track is not about a human at all, but a creature from Russian mythology. Just as the prog rock band Yes arrive on stage to Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite", Daria's album opens with a song about the Firebird: "Golden Apples". The Firebird crops up often in Russian folklore. It is a mischievous magical spirit, and in this song, every night it visits the King's orchard and steals golden apples from his tree. The King's three sons try to find out who is stealing the apples, but the Firebird is confident it will never be caught as it enchants the palace and keeps everyone in a deep sleep whilst it is there. The reason that Daria has included a song about the Firebird is due to a bit of the Firebird legend that I hadn't heard of before: there is a Firebird within each of us! Our ribcages are the bars that form the birdcages that trap our Firebirds. It is our own internal Firebird that gives us our playful nature and makes us what we are.
Of all the emotions that drive us, love is Lord of all. At least, that was the opinion of Richard Fariña, who wrote "The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood". As a hippy at heart, I think back to the time of flower power as the time when love ruled, but Richard, (who was married to Joan Baez's sister Mimi), wrote the lyrics before the Woodstock festival occurred, and at a time when the Vietnam war was raging. To be honest, there probably has never been a time when all of mankind treated nature and eachother with respect, but it is a lovely dream. Pete Seeger released the song in 1966, and Mimi released it herself on an album called "Memories", two years after Richard's untimely death. The song was made famous, though, by Sandy Denny. To sing a Sandy Denny song takes huge courage. Sandy is widely recognised as being one of the greatest singers ever, so to sing one of her songs risks unfavourable comparisons. Daria though rises to the challenge and demonstrates that she too is one of our greatest singers.
Daria also shows her courage with the song "Shame Or Glory". William McGonagall is widely regarded as one of the worst poets ever. Florence Foster Jenkins is widely regarded as one of the worst singers ever. To compare herself with them is to offer an easy target for a lazy reviewer. I've never heard of any other singer songwriter brave enough to make such a comparison, or to have enough confidence that any critics will understand that Daria is not casting aspersions on her own songwriting or singing abilities, but that the song is about ambition and self belief. You, me, Daria, McGonagall and Foster Jenkins all strive for recognition. Some of us will never achieve glory. Some seek fame via the X-Factor or Britain's Got Talent. Some, like Daria, are extremely hardworking, extremely talented, jobbing singer-songwriters who will find fame through hard graft. The poet, William Meredith, described Florence Foster Jenkins as: 'never exactly an aesthetic experience, or only to the degree that an early Christian among the lions provided aesthetic experience; it was chiefly immolatory, and Madame Jenkins was always eaten, in the end'. Daria explores the theme of being thrown to the lions (i.e. the public and critics) and concludes that 'zealots, and not the lions, are the winners in the end.'
The title track, "Earthly Delights" encapsulates the themes of the album, by drawing parallels with the Bosch painting. We are strange fruit in the garden of earthly delights like the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden. There is an expression 'the apple doesn't fall far from the tree' meaning fallen apples become new apple trees, like the tree from which they fell. Humans often look like and take on the characteristics of their parents. If the strange fruit was created by a higher being, perhaps we inherited our desires from the tree from which we fell. Perhaps our passions aren't sins after all.
"Rusalka" was originally a track on Kara's album, "Water's So Deep...", but she has covered it here as it is all about lust and temptation. The Rusalki are a Slavic myth, spirits of wronged females who haunt the rivers, like mermaids or siren, out to seek revenge on males. They appear in Antonín Dvorák's opera "Rusalka", but Daria's version is based on Alexander Pushkin's poem, translated from the original Russian by John Farndon. It tells of a monk who has vowed to deny himself all pleasures of the flesh, who meets a Rusalka, in the form of a naked young woman in the river. It occurs to me, that in these days of the internet and Game Of Thrones, most of us would probably not bat an eyelid if 'a naked girl from the waters arose' in front of us. Pickings must be lean for the modern day Rusalki. How can they attract victims to their watery lair if all we wanted to do was take a selfie in front of them? I think I have the answer. All they need is Maria Osman's exquisite piano playing, Kate Rouse's hypnotic backing vocals, and Daria's superb singing. Such a triumfeminate would draw anyone to their doom.
Unrequited love is often a theme of songs that aim to cover the human condition, and "Earthly Delights" includes the traditional Irish song "The Pride of Petravore". I've heard various versions of the song before (Eileen Og), but have never quite managed to make out all the lyrics, as there are at least two syllables per beat, and the song is pretty fast paced. Strangely, it takes the clear crystal voice of Daria, a Russian, to be able to sing it in a way that you can hear. The song suggests that to win the heart of a woman, you have to be mean to her - not a sentiment that Daria would support, but she does admit to enjoy singing it.
Whether "Cap And Bells" is also about unrequited love, I am not certain. It is based on a poem by William Butler Yeats (he who wrote "Down By The Salley Gardens") about a jester in love with a young Queen. The lyrics are so full of metaphor, I am unable to tell whether it ended happily ever after or not. It begins in the palace gardens, at night, quiet and dark, a metaphor perhaps for the Queen's unhappiness, or possibily the Queen's virginity. The Queen is in her bedroom, fighting off the advances of the jester by locking the door and drawing the curtains, but the jester's advances are weirdly couched in mysterious metaphor by him sending the colours of his costume to her. To win the Queen's love, the jester 'dies' by leaving his cap and bells where she will find them. The song ends with daylight dawning and the garden bursting into life with the sound of crickets. The Queen has fallen in love, but I am unsure whether the jester has literally passed away, or whether, having removed his cap and bells his life as a jester is over, but he is still alive. A lovely song, but I'm not sure I am erudite enough to interpret Yeats's work fully.
We all know of the legend of Robin Hood. Basically he was a resistance fighter at the time of King John, during the period when 'good' King Richard was abroad attempting genocide. Daria's song, "Greedy King" tells of a different kind of resistance that occurred at the same time. King John wanted a hunting lodge in the Nottinghamshire village of Gotham (pronounced goat-ham), which would have rendered the residents homeless. In those days, it was thought that insanity was contagious, so the residents all feigned madness. The King's advisors, for fear of their own sanity, advised the King that Gotham should be left alone. Similarly, the residents of Ingushetia, the "Long Lost Home" of Daria's grandmother, recently performed a peaceful protest, by all taking to the streets. Daria's point in the song is that there are many ways to protest against injustices, and they don't have to be violent.
The tracks "Vasilisa" and "Morozko" have already been reviewed on Fatea as they appeared on recent EP releases from Daria, so I won't dive in to them too deeply now, except to say that in my opinion "Morozko" is probably the best song that has ever been written. OK, I haven't heard every single other song, so I can't make a definitive statement, but on the balance of probability, I'm pretty sure I am on firm grounds. Don't even know whether 'riff' is the correct term to use for an acoustic guitar, but I adore Jonny Dyer's opening riff to the song. The chorus 'Are you cold yet, my maiden fair?' sends shivers down my spine. It is a complete story, told in just over four minutes - Disney would take at least ninety minutes to tell the same tale - of a myth that dates back before Christianity that has evolved to become our Father Christmas. Since its release on the "Winter Delights" EP, I have probably listened to this song more than any other song ever, and it still floors me every time.
So you would assume, that if I believe that "Morozko" is the best song ever written, then you would be safe to bet that it was my favourite track on the album. Strangely, that is not the case. There is one more track on the album, that is even better! Like "Rusalka", "Made Of Light" first appeared on "Water's So Deep..." and it has been reprised here. Kara's version of the song was lovely, but this version is just so beautiful if made me flood with tears the first time I heard it. Jonny Dyer's mournful trumpet playing on this is heartbreaking. If, when you listen to this track, you don't decide that you want it played at your funeral then you are probably already dead.
Daria is joined by some amazing musicians on this album: concert pianist Marina Osman, recently voted best musician of the year by Folking.com; Kate Rouse, also from Kara, on hammered dulcimer, and backing vocals; Jonny Dyer on guitars, bouzouki, piano, backing vocals and drop dead gorgeous trumpet; Vicki Swan on various nyckelharpas, double bass and English border bagpipes; Jason Emberton, the producer, also plays drums, percussion, bass and other strings. She is also joined on violin by Tom Kitching and none other than Phil Beer, from Show Of Hands.
And if that wasn't enough, there is an easter egg in the form of a hidden twelfth track on the album. There is a film about Ali Khashagulgov, an Ingush poet, called "Freedom. Fatherland. Mother Tongue." He wrote a poem called "Highlanders", which Daria has translated into English and written the music, and the song features in the film. The song has been hidden as track zero on the album. Sadly, I can't review it as I don't have the technology (an old fashioned CD player). The song is about the joy felt by the Ingush people on returning to their home nation, after the events that are covered on Daria's CD "Long Lost Home".
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