Recorded live at the 2003 High Mayhem Festival in Sante Fe (New Mexico), Prayers From the Underbelly captures a young creative band in a state of surprising maturity, delivering a deeply moving and quietly beautiful set. The performance (and album) consists solely of the title piece, conducted by leader Molly Sturges. To what extent the piece is improvised or written-down remains unclear, but the liner notes present the performance as a conducted improvisation with conducted pauses accounting for the eight-part structure. The music begins with trickles of piano, chopped up and recycled courtesy of turntablist DJ Ultraviolet and live samplist CK Barlow. Singers Sturges and Julie West (the latter credited as guest vocalist) soon join in, along with oud player Moustapha Stefan Dill and drummer Jefferson Voorhees. The approach is coherent, with good listening quality, and a touch of world music to add a distinctive flavor. The true nature of MJane kicks in with "Summon," a quietly moving call in an invented, personal language that takes hold of the listener's heart and soul, and won't let go until the last note of "She" fades out. The oud plays a key part in "Pilgrim," "(dis)solve" and "Edie," often paired with Sturges' harmonium to produce a soothing Arab-tinged accompaniment that perfectly matches the singers' extended techniques. Some sections, including "Edie" (reminiscent of Peter Gabriel's "Passion") and "She" (featuring a rare set of English lyrics) are more songs than improvisations, balancing out the more abstract moments of the suite. There is virtuosity at play here, but mostly feeling, a lot of feeling conveyed through the vocal performances and the controlled delicateness of the improvisations. And that is why Prayers From the Underbelly is such a ravishing album, the kind you sincerely wish could draw a wider audience. For this music seems to have the power to change lives, or at least to bring some peace and understanding. Despite its creative, experimental ways, it speaks directly to the soul, like the most immediate of songs. Highly recommended.
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AllMusic Review by François Couture