Caught In The Undertow

Sarah McLachlan's career has had a slow, steady climb since she debuted in

1988 with Touch. It could be said that 1994's Fumbling Towards

Ecstasy was her master work, full of haunted poetry and McLachlan's

stunning, earthy voice. But it was at least a year before her first single

from that album, the chilling "Possession," sauntered up the charts -- and

proceeded to hang out on alternative play lists for the next two years.

McLachlan's pet project this summer, the Lilith Fair tour, has received so much hype in recent months, it would have been easy to overlook that she's also had an album in the works. Unfortunately, Surfacing, which was just released, may not live u

p to fans' expectations.

Despite a number of lovely and striking tracks on the album, there are also a few duds which detract from the whole work, and leave the listener wanting more from the usually introspective artist.

The album opens with its first single, "Building a Mystery," a straight-ahead pop tune with a lyric that could describe anyone who cultivates a personality to hide their insecurities behind. "You come out at night/ That's when the energy comes/ When the

dark side's light and the vampires roam/ You strut your rasta wear and your suicide poem," she sings over layers of acoustic and electric guitars.

Much of Surfacing focuses on electric guitar work -- which is a switch for McLachlan who, although she's played guitar for years, has traditionally used the piano as her main instrument. "Adia" and "Black & White" keep a good pace, but "Sweet Surr

ender" really breaks loose with its siren-like opening riff and its cool, calculated lyrical themes. McLachlan's soaring vocal, backed by the crashing guitars and drums, is exhilarating.

Of course, no Sarah McLachlan album would be complete without slow,

piano-based tracks, and Surfacing is no exception. She explores loss

in "Do What You Have To Do," co-written with friend Colleen Wolstenholme.

But the real devastation comes with "Angel," a song McLachlan wrote after

the series of articles Rolling Stone published about the '90s wave of

heroin overdoses.

Her lyrics on "Angel" are tenuous enough that she could be talking about

any difficult time: "I need some distraction, oh beautiful release/ Memories

seep from my veins/ It may be empty and weightless/ And maybe I'll find some

peace tonight/ In the arms of the angel." McLachlan's piano melody is equally

elegiac, creating a stunning tribute to escapism and to the musicians

who have given their lives in its pursuit.

Other tracks, unfortunately, fall flat. "Adia," for instance, seems a pale substitute

for Fumbling's "Good Enough"; like the former, it's sung as a love

tune to another woman. And its melody, especially the chorus, is familiar

enough to sound cliched. In "Witness" she practically recycles a lyric --

"Will we burn in Heaven/ Like we do down here?" sounds suspiciously much like "Am I in Heaven here or am I in Hell?" from "Hold On," a song where that

question was more pertinent.

On the other hand, the musicianship here is excellent. McLachlan does

double duty on guitars and piano, and her voice is, as always, gorgeous

although she doesn't take any chances with her vocal performances. She's

joined by co-writer and producer Pierre Marchand on keyboards and husband

Ash Sood on drums, while the Barenaked Ladies' Jim Creeggan fleshes out the

low end with his stand-up bass. Brian Minato and Michel Pepin fill in some

of the gaps on guitars and bass, and Yves Derosiers handles a number of

unusual instruments, including lap steel, slide bass and bowed saw.

The closing track, "Last Dance," is McLachlan's second instrumental. It's a

sweet, nostalgic tune with a waltzing player-piano theme and Creeggan's

melancholy bowed bass. Derosiers' performance on the saw is weepy and

wistful, painting the picture of some long-cherished memory, perhaps of

first love or final good-byes, an image both old-fashioned and timeless.

When McLachlan chose to title this album Surfacing, it's quite possible she meant that she was finally rising above the sadness and pain that had

inspired her previous records. Her new songs reveal a sense of joy, hope

and peace that she hasn't expressed before. However, happiness does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with inspiration and so some of Surfacing comes off as superficial and uninspired -- giving her chosen title an unfortunate double meaning.

After all, few of life's important moments happen on the surface.