A product of the Ontario coffeehouse scene, Canada’s Jane Siberry was initially compared to such diverse female colleagues as Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson. Ultimately, though, she stands as an original (and quickly proved herself as such), seamlessly melding aspects of high and low art into her music as effectively as any of her peers. Her eponymous debut album (reissued a decade later with upgraded packaging) is a low-budget, folk-oriented affair. But her playful humanist worldview and predilection for inventive, wide-ranging arrangements is already firmly in place on smartly observed material (“Writers Are a Funny Breed”) that’s by turns humorous (“Marco Polo”) and darkly atmospheric (“The Strange Well”), with quietly effective arrangements that focus firmly on Siberry’s delicate, yet sturdy, vocals.
Siberry’s previous job explains “Waitress,” the amusing lead cut of No Borders Here. Buoyed by inventive arrangements informed by the enthusiasm of new wave, Siberry rips through nine delightful, skewed narratives and observations, including “Extra Executives” and “Symmetry (The Way Things Have to Be).” Her gifts as a charismatic storyteller are more than sufficient to sustain longer pieces like the seven-plus minutes of “Mimi on the Beach.” The Speckless Sky picks up where No Borders Here leaves off (both albums include tracks entitled “Map of the World”), but with an even greater scope, particularly on the expansive “One More Color” and the intimate “The Taxi Ride.”
Siberry fans split into camps with The Walking. The epic songs (“The White Tent the Raft,” “The Bird in the Gravel”) are stretched to proportions likely to alienate those predisposed to linear songwriting, as Siberry switches voices and perspectives. Elsewhere, an air of lost love generates some of Siberry’s most touching vignettes: “The Lobby,” “The Walking (And Constantly)” and particularly the draining “Goodbye.” Listeners who savored The Walking are apt to find Bound by the Beauty. a bit anemic, but those who thought the former too ambitious will cherish it, as the material is distinctly more grounded. “Everything Reminds Me of My Dog” and “The Life Is the Red Wagon” border too closely on whimsy, but are counterbalanced by darker cuts like “La Jalouse.” A Collection 1984-1989 includes two tracks each from Siberry’s second and third albums and three each from her fourth and fifth — it’s a fair representation of her work up to that point.
On When I Was a Boy, Siberry forges the most effective union of her extreme aesthetic leanings yet. With production assistance from Brian Eno on two tracks and Michael Brook on a third, Siberry serves up a dozen musical constructions that are highly complex but no less seductive for it. The rumbling “Temple,” “Love Is Everything” (included in two versions), the multiple-personality “An Angel Stepped Down” (with vocal cameos by Rebecca Jenkins and Holly Cole) and “Calling All Angels” (a duet with k.d.lang, originally recorded for Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World) are standouts. The album is Siberry’s most coherent since No Borders Here, and leagues more ambitious.
Count Your Blessings is a Christmas album — featuring Siberry, Cole, Jenkins, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Victoria Williams — recorded live in concert in 1993 for a CBC broadcast. Along with some delightful ensemble numbers, Siberry contributes vocal solos on an original song, “Are You Burning Little Candle,” and the traditional “In the Bleak Mid Winter.”
Recorded without an outside producer, Maria suggests that Siberry has grasped Eno’s idea that the processes of creativity can be more interesting than the creation. The musical material for these ten tracks was recorded in a single three-day session with a jazz quartet; Siberry then constructed songs from her favorite passages. Coming off like Chris Connor aspiring to the flights of Betty Carter, the normally versatile Siberry rarely asserts the vocal presence necessary to carve definite shapes from the rambling improvisations. Most of the tracks, particularly “Lovin’ Cup” and “Begat Begat,” are pleasant to hear but tiresome to follow; consistent lyrical themes concerning childhood lend the album a certain unity, but not enough to make it cohesive. Strangely enough, the album’s most effective cut is the sprawling 20-minute “Oh My My” (divided from the other nine cuts by a two-minute silence), which weaves quotations from “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into a musical tapestry that condenses the lyrical ideas explored elsewhere into an entrancing meditation on lost innocence.