Mir Stavola – Gypsy Heaven (2011)

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Philadelphia-based Mir Stavola pulls off a difficult act on Gypsy Heaven, expertly balancing between two seemingly disparate worlds. She longs for and appreciates the rich cultural history associated with these traveling tribes, but also the ways that this world now encroaches from all sides. Gypsy Heaven, produced by David St. James, brings in a number of ageless textures and themes, basing a number of the tracks on gypsy standards, but does so with an ingratiating, contemporary sheen. Stavola also stirs in a set of original compositions that save Gypsy Heaven from becoming too much of a period piece.

This charming combination is best heard on the album’s opening track, “A Postaris.” A swirling, if unnamable, passion surrounds the tune, with its insistent rhythm, lonesome chorus and boldly romantic guitar solo. Stavola, a Slovakia native, sings the opening track in a mixture of Gypsy dialect and her native tongue, underscoring the traditional song’s intriguing old-world mystery.

Stavola digs deeper into these restless emotions on the title track, a song that explores the inherent freedom found in rootlessness. “Got no last name. I’ve got no home, only stars above my head,” Stavola sings, adding new self-penned lyrics to a soaring traditional tune. “Late at night, when I look out west, spirit moves my pagan soul and I dance until dawn.” “Mamo,” another standard with new lyrics, explores the heart-rending back story of a traveling fortune-teller whose family broke part. First, her mother passes away during childbirth, then her father leaves. There was, it seemed, nowhere to go but out into the world.

Another updated old tune, “In the Carriage,” shows how that freedom can grow into a sense of empowerment. Stavola punctuates this bumpy trip out into the great wide open with a joyous alliterative chorus of “hop, hop, hop!,” as their worries and fears disappear in the cloud of dust. “In the carriage, a bunch of us girls that don’t need no diamonds and pearls,” she sings. “Mighty, free, like wild horses. We can make our own choices.” The foreboding, atmospheric “Storm,” however, shows how the broader forces of government-backed evil, whether they are oppressive tyrants or warmongers, can dash those dreams in the blink of an eye. The menace of a new world, with its myriad new problems, is never far away on Gypsy Heaven, and in particular, on a series of originals from Stavola.

She is the voice of reason, a quiet whispering conscience on “Wild Ride,” a propulsive folk-rock composition. “Don’t come back,” she chides, “until you lose that dollar sign responsible for making your third eye blind.” “Dark Horses,” highlighted by another sharply inventive turn on the guitar, finds her character pining away for a lover as charming as he is enigmatic. “My lover said I’m precious, like a pearl on the bottom of the sea,” Stavola sings. “He said he’d bring me a white mare from across the mountain to match my light for everyone to see.”

Her central worries about the loss of the old ways, of our connection to freedom and to tradition, plays out in “One,” where Stavola makes a plaintive stand against materialism, social injustice and armed conflict. Ignoring the problem, Stavola surmises, won’t make it go away, either.

She closes Gypsy Heaven with a jazz-inflected instrumental, “Horse Thief,” something that again expertly ties together the album’s two principal motifs, the old and the new. In her hands, echoing the memorable call for peace from “One,” they are all connected.

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