Sarah McLachlan | Mirrorball: The Complete Concert (Nettwerk/Arista/Legacy)

cd_sarahmacBy expanding to include McLachlan's complete setlist for the tour (recorded at the final two-night stand in Portland, Ore., in the spring of 1998), this collection gives a broader picture of McLachlan's career by dipping back to her 1989 debut Touch and its 1991 follow-up Solace, as well as enhancing the live feel by including more audience cheering and stage banter.

 

 

Sarah McLachlan was at the pinnacle of her career in the summer of 1999. The Canadian singer-songwriter was riding a wave of success from the release of her commercial breakthrough album Surfacing and the triumphant launch of Lilith Fair, the first-ever traveling rock festival featuring only female artists, when she solidified her placement at the forefront of the late '90s pop scene with the release of Mirrorball, her first live album and a massive hit with three million U.S. sales alone and a pair of ubiquitous radio singles ("I Will Remember You" and "Angel").

Mirrorball was just a teaser, however, meant to tide over fans for what would turn out to be a six-year wait between Surfacing and 2003's Afterglow. In what appears to be another extensive break from writing new material after her purported comeback, the songstress has released her second live album (2004's Afterglow Live), her second remix album (2005's Bloom: Remix Album), and her first Christmas album (Wintersong, just released), before gracing us with yet another live album, Mirrorball: The Complete Concert.

With four CDs of what amounts, more or less, to filler, you might be wondering why even bother with this release. The original album was and is an excellent live album, but it's incomplete, concentrating 12 of its 14 tracks on just two of McLachlan's albums, the eight-million seller Surfacing and its triple platinum predecessor, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. By expanding to include McLachlan's complete setlist for the tour (recorded at the final two-night stand in Portland, Ore., in the spring of 1998), this collection gives a broader picture of McLachlan's career by dipping back to her 1989 debut Touch and its 1991 follow-up Solace, as well as enhancing the live feel by including more audience cheering and stage banter. This exact recording was released as the VHS/DVD companion to the original Mirrorball, but this two-disc set marks its debut on CD.

Ignoring all the ancillary crap, the question becomes: is the album worth owning? The answer, I am pleased to report, is a resounding, "Oh, dear God, yes!" Many live albums can have an endearing ramshackle sloppiness to them, but that is anything but the case here, as McLachlan surrounds herself with a cast of musicians who are stunning in both their skill and consistency. McLachlan's vocals are sublime, capturing the breathy textures of her slower numbers while angelically soaring over the more upbeat ones. The sound mix seems to have been beefed up since the initial release as well, with Brian Minato's slithering bass lines and David Sinclair's darkly romantic leads (think mid-'90s Peter Buck) given plenty of room to breathe.

Some of the songs added back into the Mirrorball tracklist for this release, particularly those from Fumbling, are so far ahead of the pack of songs that made the original that you'll wonder if someone might have been asleep at the switch back in '99. The opener for both versions, a much meatier take on "Building a Mystery," slides effortlessly here into the more ethereal "Plenty," this live version outdoing the already impeccable backing vocals on the studio version. It's criminal that this version of "Ice" originally landed on the cutting room floor; this melancholic song is not only among McLachlan's finest, but its dark and foreboding tone gives the set just the jolt it needs. "Mary" is also a sweet song with a fun singalong that is a welcome addition here, although live versions of the song aren't hard to come by in other places.

The stage banter restored to this release brings the live setting into focus, and McLachlan pays particular attention to pointing out the torturous fate romance often finds in her songs; she jokingly introduces the Solace track "The Path of Thorns (Terms)" with "How about just one more jilted love song before I move on?" "Terms," the only pre-Fumbling song to make the original disc, is joined here by another Solace track, the single "Into the Fire," and the Touch song "Vox." When playing tracks from her more recent album, the slavish attempts to recreate the in-studio sound is welcome, but on these two much more dated tracks, the band plays the songs as if it's still 1991, and the result is a pair of tracks that seem out of step with the rest of the concert.

McLachlan doesn't stroll down memory lane long before slinking into "Possession" (the transition back to the Fumbling-era sound is accomplished perfectly) and bringing the crowd into it with "Ice Cream," one of the sweetest love songs ever digitally encoded and a great choice for the live setting. After firing off so many "jilted love songs" and before closing with the maybe-a-bit-too-maudlin "Angel," McLachlan and her band fire through a powerful version of Fumbling's title track, McLachlan chanting the mantra "I won't fear love" as Sinclair's guitar explodes into squalls of feedback worthy of Pearl Jam's Mike McCready.

Whether you feel the need to upgrade from the single disc version of Mirrorball to this two-disc-er is largely dependent on how big of a McLachlan fan you are. If you don't own the prior version or, god forbid, any of McLachlan's catalog, do yourself a favor and track down this phenomenal collection as soon as possible. A | Jason Green

RIYL: Beth Orton, Natalie Merchant

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