In my enthusiastic review of veteran singer/songwriter Maureen Toth’s 2019 EP Blur, I pointed out one of the trademark truths inherent in the witty, colorful and deeply incisive way she weaves a musical narrative: “She often laments and meditates harshly on the world around her, but always and cheerfully chooses hope and action over despair.”
Like all musicians who faced economically and emotionally anxious times during the pandemic – maybe quadruply tough for her because she also runs a successful below the line talent firm in the film and TV industry – Maureen’s ultimately sunny worldview faced some daunting challenges. So much so that her so-called pandemic-era EP, just now dropping in 2023, has an intriguing Italian title (Chiaroscuro) that translates to “light-dark.” Generally defined, the term refers to the treatment of light and shade in drawing or painting. In paintings, the description refers to the clear tonal contrasts which are often used to suggest the volume and modelling of the subjects depicted.
We should keep those interesting visual art concepts in mind as we listen to Toth’s dynamic six song journey that perfectly embodies those contrasts and subtle, shadowy shadings between joy and pain, love and sorrow, triumph and frustration. The most commercial, radio friendly of the bunch is the opener “Liars,” whose rollicking, up-tempo vibe and anthem-like, vocal harmony buffeted hook provides the thrust for edgy, biting, deeply cynical lyrics that dig into the mainstream media for manipulating viewers and riling them up by playing loosely with quasi-truths. No line ever sun captures the reality of this unfortunate sociopolitical reality than “It’s a cynical game/To manufacture pain.”
Those who agree with that original assessment that Toth somehow always sees even the most despairing moment clean through to the light will exclaim “That’s our girl” when they hear the hypnotic, folk-pop coolness of “A Little Light,” a stark yet sparkling, easy jangling collaboration with guitarist Carlos Calvo (David Duchovny, Rob Morrow, Adam Levine), who also worked with the singer on Blur. She peppers sweet, soaring vocal harmonies around lines that give off a feeling of optimism even in the midst of trouble. To wit, “In our darkness, in our despair, something beautiful’s waiting there. . .A little light can save the day. . .guide the way. . .shatters the deepest dark.” Truly a glorious roadmap not simply for pandemic and post pandemic times but for all of life’s crazy ups and downs.
Perhaps the most fascinating track on Chiaroscuro – and the one Toth calls the EP’s emotional centerpiece – is “Con Te,” a half Italian, half English romp that begins with gentle acoustic intimacy before evolving into a playful shuffling vibe and lyrical, romantic and wildly hopeful pop/folk anthem. It’s quite glorious hearing her sing in the native language of her mother’s side of the family (almost like an indie folk Andrea Bocelli) but she captures our curiosity when she sings the translation: “If I can’t go with you – then take all of my love.” That sentiment emerged at the beginning of the pandemic (when she penned the song) when Italy was one of the hardest hit countries.
“People would connect with each other by making music with pots and pans and singing out their windows,” she says. “This song is a meditation on that time and how I felt people would be feeling about not being able to see or go to their loved ones if they were sick. Thus, the lyrics. I suppose it’s about the beauty and love that can come from pain and loss. I feel the dual languages express the connection I am trying to achieve with the lyrics.” There again, true to the Toth aesthetic in many ways, are shards of light emerging from intense darkness.
The remaining half of the EP is no less compelling, starting with another musically upbeat guitar driven pop rock personal and sociopolitical lament “Owl,” which conceptually builds from “Where did my owl go” to “Where did my joyful go” to “Where did my freedom go?” to “Where did my country go?” We truly feel her heartache when she follows all those introspective questions with a plaintive “Empty, I’m empty…” in her incredibly emotive higher range.
Can’t be sure who the Olive of the charming, acoustic guitar and vocal harmony incantation “Olive’s Song” is, but Toth is clearly fond of her because she shares two minutes simply singing “My Love” over and over with different levels of harmonic textures. It’s a bold expression of affection most artists wouldn’t dare to include. Toth wraps the set with a contemporary, guitar-spackled meditative take on “Don’t Go Near The Water” – a relatively obscure (non-hit) Johnny Cash eco-warning tune from 1974 which allows Toth to remind us – in her ever-glorious vocal style - that us that 50 years on, we’re still fighting some of the same political battles.