Orphans Review (by Mil Scott)

“Sorrow is sadness remembered in tranquility.”

As I’ve recounted previously, my introduction to Michael’s music came through purchase of a copy of Gethsemane that had somehow found its way onto the used CD rack of a Great Barrington, MA music store during the winter of 1994.  While its appearance there mystified me once I’d listened to the disc (and a quarter century later, still does), I could only chalk it up to an adage often uttered by my grandmother: “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”  Whatever the disc’s origins, however, I knew I’d found a treasure, indeed, and immediately began seeking out companion gems… a search rewarded two years later when I discovered Michael’s self-titled album listed among the choices in a CD club catalog. From there, I continued to turn over stone after stone, to no avail, until the same relative we’d visited in Great Barrington set me up with internet at the beginning of 1999.  In going online for the first time ever,  I immediately plugged “Michael McDermott” into the search box, an act repeated periodically until it led me to Bourbon Blue, an early incarnation of the Pauper Sky forum, and finally in 2001, to meeting Michael himself.

The reason I’ve prefaced my review with a bit of history is that it might be said Orphans serves as something of a history lesson on Michael’s life and work. While newer fans may view the track “Giving Up The Ghost” as sharing its opening with the song “Out From Under,” (from the disc of the same name),  to me this intro forever belongs to “Bourbon Blue,”  — which, interestingly, appeared as a “ghost” (the hidden track #12) on that CD.   Faint echoes of other resurrected spirits (“Reverse,” “Grace of God,” et al.) are arguably likewise woven throughout, as elusive phantoms that can even take on different identities to different listeners.  When speaking with an American friend who’d caught one of Michael’s shows in Germany last fall, he mentioned a song “that’s kind of a remade “Would That it Were,” as his way of describing “The Last Thing I Ever Do.”

Noting the past is clearly present on Orphans, however, in no way implies that its 12 tracks, all previously passed over for inclusion on prior releases, represent a collection of fusty old hand-me-downs.  Rather, the “orphans” introduced here present ever timely answers – and questions – unearthed upon the kind of close up inspection only time’s passage (and its “light of cooler reason”) allows.  They also very ably stand alone in providing insights into their creator, his absorption of literature, and his struggles with faith, relationships, and himself.  While that last sentence provides a brief commentary on the album as a whole, it could equally well describe every one of its songs, starting with the hopelessly catchy “Tell-tale Heart,” whose references to Edgar Allen Poe prove telling, indeed, since so much of what follows is characterized by a Poe-etic beauty of language (in such lines as “the loneliness echoes like a murder of crows”), and an honesty that at times leaves these songs’ narrator so darkly perplexed as to admit “all the faith that I once had has completely come undone” and to ponder aloud “what the hell is wrong with me.”

Lest anyone conclude from the above description that this is an album awash in gloom, however, I direct your attention to the quote at the top of this page.  While regrets and past mistakes are, indeed, quite fully explored, the gaping wounds for which Michael once pleadingly sought comfort and reparation have largely closed, though not fully healed, and many have left far from neat scars. Their sight inspires a colorful palette of memories — some dark, others filled with a light once obscured by their moments’ heat — all here reflected upon in a state of calm, as they trace their way through a melodic path of lost days (“Ne’er Do Well”), beloved family (Meadowlark), youthful adventures (Sometimes When it Rains in Memphis, Richmond), romantic loss (“Black Tree, Blue Sky,” “Full Moon Goodbye,”), and ultimately, recognition that positive changes can yet be made (“What if Today Were My Last”).

It’s tempting to summarize Orphans as a “best of” CD, despite the fact these normally consist primarily of well-known previous releases – and that Michael already put out such a collection a few years back.  For, in its concise capture of his unique musical perspective, lyrical turn-of-phrase and easily accessible sonic appeal, this disc deftly serves as a crash course in why I (and many others) have so greatly appreciated Michael’s talent for so long – while serving as a “tell-tale” harbinger that his best (or, perhaps, just more of it) might well be yet come.

Photo by Tony Piccirillo

Feel free to email me with comments or share them on Michael’s section of the Random Rants discussion board.