When Peter Gabriel's label, Realworld, began its production and distribution deal with Narada productions in the late '90s, many thought it was the end, given Narada's predilection for schlock new age recordings. The naysayers turned out to be blowing smoke. Partially as a result of this collaboration between label and distributor, Realworld has been able to issue even more recordings that stick closely to Gabriel's original vision. Flamenco singer Estrella Morente's My Songs and a Poem is a case in point. Rather than deal with world music revisionism, or the straitjacket of authenticity, this recording, like many on the label, offers a new look at an ancient music with its roots still deeply embedded in the Andalusian soil. Ms. Morente's voice is full of adventurous twists and turns and sharp shifts in both tempo and color. Accompanied by the genius guitarist Alfred Lagos and a small regiment of palmas (handclaps), Ms. Morente uses both contemporary and classical forms to get at the roots of all flamenco: its passion. While the song titles are in English, as are the translations in the sleeve notes, her singing is done in a pure, modern, and unadorned Spanish. Her tales and poems -- as evidenced by the opening track "Cockles," in which a sailor crosses not only oceans but time to glimpse his true love once more -- are full of the drip of heartbreak, the fury of unrequited lust, the flash of anger at betrayal, and the unmitigated joy of reunion and solidarity. In "Why Do You Deny the Frenzy," Morente cracks the shell of reserve, of all restraint, and admonishes her would-be lover: "What have you got against me?/Why do you deny the frenzy?/You torture your body/You are killing yourself alone/And I am tormented." Lagos' guitar is the perfect foil, his extended chords, sharply arpeggiated single lines, and percussive footwork push her to the brink in songs of lust, of devotion, of mourning and grief and bring to bear the complexities of modern life into ancient hallways. Morente responds not with empathy, but with abandon; she takes risks with her voice and her delivery, pushing syllables over the edges of accepted line breaks for the effect of transferring the depth of emotion honestly. There are 14 songs here, and not a one of them gives up its dense mystery easily. However, as in most music, the notion of feeling is enough, the sheer passion and pathos that emanates from Ms. Morente's singing and her accompanists will carry the listener into a realm of unexpected pleasure and stirring. As she closes the set with "The Flames Reach the Sky," she sings the album's only falsity -- at least metaphorically: "And the flames reach the sky/And the fire has been started/And whatever anybody thinks/I won't burn for you..." The reason for the falsity is twofold: Clearly she burns for this music and this material, and the other is that you, too, the listener, will burn for it in a way you never thought possible should you chance to bring this gorgeous, dangerous recording into your collection.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek