By Jackie Morris

Laughter Out of TearsHaunting, ethereal, and totally mesmerizing, Moira Smiley & VOCO bring an almost mystical quality to both original and traditional folk music. Drawing from a deep well of influence, their fourth album, Laughter Out of Tears, moves effortlessly from Appalachian roots to Balkan polyphony to Scandinavian folksongs; and then transcends tradition on five tracks by introducing the innovative “Choir of YOU,” a technology-empowered “chorus” of 200 voices from around the English-speaking world.

The result is a kind of magic that is both subliminal and sublime, characterized by rich, complex harmonies, other-worldly polyphonic singing and sparse instrumentation. The 8 women who contributed to this VOCO release all sing (divinely, I should add) and play most of the instruments – a minimalist banjo and accordion (by Smiley), a tender cello (by April Guthrie), and plenty of body percussion. Single tracks are also punctuated by fiddle and uke, with guest artists on guitar, trumpet and percussion.

The CD opens and closes with an excerpt from a longer, middle track called Dream/Dve Nevesti. It is based on a traditional song from Bulgaria, but through Smiley’s brilliant arrangement it sounds like the call of one’s subconscious – beginning with the soft sounds of nature, and almost bird-like, wordless calls of the singers. The increasing layers of vocalization invite you....into the magical realm of VOCO.

The first actual track is a sweet old Swedish folk song of unrequited love called Visa Fran Jarna. Sung in exquisite three-part harmony by Guthrie, Smiley and Inga Swearingen, the song is beautiful simply as a piece of music. But better still, Smiley has included all the translations to the lyrics in the CD booklet. A real plus!

The second song, a traditional Appalachian ballad by Tommy Jarrell, Chilly Winds, features Laura Cortese on the fiddle, as well as the VOCO “Choir” (the virtual incarnation of her concept for the “Choir of You”). Smiley gathered her choral members from Australia, Europe and North America by allowing people to download the songs from her website...add their own voice by following the guide-tracks and sheet-music posted there....and then email their tracks back to her. The only “tricky” part, she says, was mixing the many vocals she received, but it “was one of the highlights of my year.”

Another song with the VOCO Choir follows on track 3 – this one a beautiful original by Smiley called North Country. Like all the 17 tracks on Laughter Out of Tears – especially the five originals – it reflects Smiley’s deeply emotional journey during the year following the death of her father. It is a journey of love that begins with longing and ends in reconnecting with joy and laughter. As she writes in North Country:

The heart I miss is not afraid of longing

Like the branches of a of a winter vine

The longing brings me closer to everything I love

So I’ll sing that song – that lonesome song

To take me back to the mystery.

Soon, the joy is celebrated in one of Moira’s lighter songs, Mazurka, as she sings about taking the time to enjoy life. Pilar Diaz adds a uke to this one, and Smiley brings her accordion into the waltz, as the chorus swells with the VOCO Choir. By Track 14, the good times really get rolling with her syncopated original, Steam Engines. Emily Eagen plays the uke on this number, with guest artist Dave Weber on guitar, and lots of body percussion. Fun!

The final song is all-out boisterous rendition of Robert Johnson’s They’re Red Hot. Abigail Nessen-Bengson adds harmony and body percussion here, along with Guthrie, Smiley, and the VOCO Choir. And yes, they ARE red hot!

Still, I have not yet told you about two of my favorite tracks on this album: The first is a heart-wrenching performance of Woody Guthrie’s Deportee. Of course, it’s one of the great folk classics - the true story of the plane crash that killed 28 migrant workers near Los Gatos Canyon as they were being deported to Mexico. But Moira Smiley and VOCO take the tragedy to a powerful new level. It’s sung by Diaz, Guthrie, Nesson-Bengson, and Smiley, with Smiley on banjo, Round Mountain’s Char Rothschild and Robby Rothschild on trumpet and percussion, respectively.

The second unforgettable cover is of Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl. On this track, the above singers are joined by the voice of Sally Dworsky. Accompanied by just banjo, uke and cello, the five women capture the yearning heart of this song – taking it, like all the other musical offerings on this album – to a place of other-worldly beauty.

A New York transplant to the tiny town of Carpinteria, CA, Jackie is a freelance writer by profession and a singer-songwriter by passion. Her third album of original Folk/Americana songs was among Top Folk Albums of 2011 on the Folk Music Radio Airplay Charts, and her new newly-released fourth album, Can't Fix Crazy, is among Top Folk Albums of May 2014. Jackie is also an active member in such acoustic music communities as SummerSongs, SongMakers, and FAR-West Folk Alliance.