FolkWorld Issue 40 11/2009
FolkWorld CD Reviews
Brian McNeill "The Baltic tae Byzantium"
Label: Greentrax; No.CDTRAX341; 2009
18 years ago Scottish folk songwriter and fiddler Brian McNeill published his groundbreaking and superb album "Back o the North Wind" which featured songs about the emigration of Scots to America. After all these years, and 10 years after his last solo album "TO answer the peacock", he managed to finalise a follow-on album to "Back o the North Wind". His new album "The Baltic tae Byzanticum" celebrates and remembers tales of the lifes of Scots in Europe.
As with "Back O The North Wind", this new album is a real labour of love. The tracks were recorded over a 6 year period, and it is obvious that each song has been well researched. This is an album full of history and tales. The lyrics of all songs are written by Brian in Scots; these are meaningful songs mostly based on real historic events and people. Some of the people are famous - such as John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots - others are less famous, such as Brian's own parents. The booklet provides extensive background stories to the songs, giving the listener a bit of a history lesson. The ballads are superb, and - as you would expect - the musicianship is top class, with a number of excellent guest musicians on harp, banjo, pipes, guitar, percussion etc.
Highly recommended. I will be interested to see if, in another 15 years or so, there will be a follow on to this album, and what the theme will be!
Harald Haugaard "Burning Fields"
Label: Pile House Records; No.PHR0309; 2009
The latest album of Danish fiddler extraordinaire is split into two. The first 10 titles are more or less what you would expect from a Haugaard album - classic Harald Haugaard Danish-ish style folk music with a clear focus on Harald's fiddle playing, joined by a good range of other musicians, principally on guitars, double bass, percussion and cello. The tunes are a mix of own compositions and traditionals, and two of the songs also feature the vocals of Helene Blum.
And just when you thought you knew what the album was about, the "Burning Fields Suite" starts with a lot of noise. The Suite, composed by Harald, has a classical structure (Allegro - Vivace - Lento - Andante - Adagio), but is more of a instrumental fiddle rock music suite. Musically this has very high quality and shows yet another side of the talents of Harald. I have to say though that it is not so much my cup of tea...
Pancho Alvarez "Solidos Galicianos"
Label:Pai Musica; No.PAI-F-09/057; 2009
Pancho Alvarez is internationally best know from his mandolin playing appearances in the Carlos Nuñez Band. But the Galician is also an excellent multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter in his own right.
On "Solidos Galicianos" he has returned to doing the whole album on his own. If you would book the "band" that recorded this album, you would have about 8 Panchos on stage, playing a range of instruments such as mandolin, guitars, concertina, bouzouki, bass, accordion, violin and percussion - and some of them singing. Only for 2 songs, you would have a person on stage who would not be Pancho - as two songs are sung by Maria Solleiro.
You cannot be but impressed by the talents of this man - how can one person play all these very different instruments to a good standard, and sing well - and write a number of songs and tunes himself? With all respect, I have to say though that something gets lost in the music. Listening to the music, it DOES feel like it is just him - the music misses the dynamics and interaction of musicians playing together. This is even more apparent as he has played in for every single number around 8-10 instruments - something where less may have been more.
An impressive achievement nonetheless, and definitely a very pleasant album to listen to - but it could have been so much more dynamic and lively!
The Poozies "Yellow like sunshine"
Label: Greentrax; No.CDTRAX342; 2009; Playing time: 43.40 min
The Poozies are back - with the return of a familiar face and the departure of a familiar face. The Poozies is an all-female Scottish-English band started some time back in the 1990s, to combine quality songwriting, Scottish traditions and excellent music, with harps, accordeon and guitar - and featuring some trademark harmony singing. When the band started, it was centred around English singer/songwriter Sally Barker, who left the band a few years later. The other founding members, Karen Tweed (accordeon) and the Scottish harp duo Mary MacMaster and Patsy Seddon, continued with support from new Poozie Eilidh Shaw on fiddle. The latest line-up sees, unfortunately, the departure of Karen Tweed, but the good news is that Sally Barker has returned, plus there has been an introduction of a fifth Poozie, Mairearad Green on accordion and pipe drones.
"Yellow like sunshine" is a strong album for the band, with a rounded sound and mix of tunes and songs. Unlike in the early Poozies days, Sally is less in the centre of the band which results in a pleasant balance between her and Patsy's and Mary's lead singing. Sally is the lead singer on only 2 songs (both written by herself); Patsy takes the lead in the three traditional Gaelic songs on the album, and Mary sings two English songs (Laura Viers' "Black Eye Susan" and John McCusker and John Tam's "Will I see thee more?"). The instrumentals have a strong focus on the talents of Mairearad's accordeon and Eilidh's fiddle; they are beautiful, uplifting and full of flair. The combination of fiddle, accordion and harps remains great - while you cannot replace the unique accordion style of a Karen Tweed, the Poozies have found a superb alternative new lineup.
The only criticism would go to the booklet - while I quite like the cover picture, the cover is very bright and yellow but does not contain much in terms of sleeve notes and song texts, and looks a bit cheap. But apart from that, this is an excellent album.
Paul Anderson "home+beauty"
Label: Greentrax; No.CDTRAX340; 2009; Playing time: 1h 14min
This is a compilation of some of the favourite tracks of this talented fiddler from Scotland's North-East. On "home+beauty" Paul Anderson revisits his recording history, principally picking up favourite tracks from his solo albums released between 1993 and 2004. There is the full range of Paul's somewhat eclectic, but most of the time cohesive range of music. While the backbone of the album is classic Scots fiddle repertoire, he also ventures into folk rock, bluegrass and even into classical, with Brahm's popular "Hungarian Dance" and Mendelssohn's "Finagal's Cave". Similarly, the range of arrangements is wide, although mostly steeped in folk traditions - there are some folkrock numbers, a gentle tune with the fiddle backed only by snare drums, and there are stunningly beautiful slow trad tunes focussed on the fiddle. One title is a major exception to the norm - a heavy metal song by Aberdonian band Pallas; while starting off with a fiddle arrangement by Paul, the heavy metal bit feels completely out of place on this CD. Meanwhile, the two songs sung by the late Jim Reid, "By the Mountain Stream" and "Black Velvet Band" fit well into the album and are very enjoyable.
The various session musicians from the various albums include the like of Tony McManus (guitar), Margaret Smith (piano), Ali Napier (keyboards) and Brian Cruickshank (bass).
Overall a very appealing collection which never gets boring throughout the full length of 1h 14 min (!).
Cillian Vallely & Kevin Crawford "On Common Ground"
BallyO Records; BOR 001; 2009; Playing time: 50 min
Lúnasa's woodwind section goes it alone - or together - with this excellent duet album. Kevin Crawford's flute, Cillian Vallely's pipes, and the pair of them on whistles occasionally, plus some very tasty guitar support from Paul Meehan and Donal Clancy: On Common Ground was unlikely to fail, and has in fact succeded beyond my expectations. I've tried it on a few CD players, and the pipes come through slightly strong every time - which is fine by me - but despite this slight imbalance On Common Ground has to rank among the top duet recordings of recent years.
The lion's share of On Common Ground is firmly traditional, or at least most people have forgotten who wrote the tunes and hope to goodness that they're out of copyright. Some of them, like Farewell to Lissycasey or The Periwig, are familiar to pipers and fluters the world over. Others are less well known, and are a fresh delight here: John Feehilly's, Straddle the Donkey, Tom Busby's, The Fleadh at Tulla and more. There are also fine recent tunes by Siobhán Peoples, Nollaig Casey, Joanie Madden and others. The sleeve notes are exemplary in giving the sources and pedigrees of each tune.
Although Kevin Crawford is a prolific composer and contributes more than a couple of tunes to most Lúnasa releases, this time he's only included two of his own compositions: but they are crackers, Days Around Lahinch and The Man From Moyasta, sumptuous slow reels on twin low whistles here. Cillian and Kevin take a solo each too, and these are also clear highlights as the flute rips into some great contemporary reels topped off with Bill Hoare's, while a sublime piping air leads to a couple of classic tunes. Cillian and Kevin finish up with two very fine old jigs, Helvic Head and Bill Harte's, ending a truly outstanding album which launches the BallyO label. A hard act to follow!
Steph Geremia "The Open Road"
Brimful of confidence, with sparkling tone and a lovely choice of tunes, Stephanie Geremia's debut CD is an unexpected treasure. Of Irish Italian extraction, possibly more Catholic than the Pope, Steph left her native New York a few years ago to explore flute music, landing up in Galway by way of Sligo and Roscommon. Along the way, she seems to have become one of the most promising young flute players around. The Open Road starts with three lively jigs which instantly display Steph's energy and skill, including her excellent recovery from a rare slip. She follows up with two meaty reels, The Donegal and The Road to Ballymac, delivered with power and precision. There's a handful of modern compositions on this recording, by such luminaries as Tommy Peoples, Joanie Madden and Charlie McKerron, but my favourite piece here is Steph's own sultry jig Linnane Terrace, a gorgeous melody somewhere between Peadar O Riada's Spoirt and a Spanish muñeira. The exotic side of The Open Road extends to Arnaud Royer's swirling Breton reel Carpe Diem and a 5/8 dance from Salamanca, as well as the beautiful Scottish air Alasdair's Tune which shows Ms Geremia's exceptional control and expression.
Black Box Music;
BBM005; 2009; Playing time: 44 min
Steph isn't short of friends in Irish music: Tola Custy, Brendan O'Regan, Jimmy Higgins, Matt Griffin, Michael Rooney and the legendary Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh all join her for a few tracks on this album, and accordionist Alan Kelly is proud to add her to his Black Box label. So he should be: Roscommon has rarely welcomed a more gifted visitor, and Steph pays homage to many of her inspirations here. Seamus O'Donnell's, Davy Maguire's,Seamus Tansey's, Tommy People's and Mulvihill's flow from the flute with rare ease, I'll even forgive her the rather flattened rhythm on this sweet version of Jimmy Lyons' Highland. One or two tracks feature the fuller tone of a C flute, another highlight of an outstanding recording. Watch out for Steph Geremia in future, on her own or with Alan Kelly's band, and don't miss The Open Road if you can get your hands on it: it will be in my Top Ten for 2009!
The Red Wellies "The Red Wellies"
Own label; 2008; Playing time: 49 min
From the mountainous Eastern USA, this trio of twin fiddles and bouzouki are a force to be reckoned with. Their debut recording is based on well-known Irish traditional material, but The Red Wellies make it their own. Not that they depart from received wisdom: there are no gimmicks, no fancy arrangements, just straight pure Irish spirit bottled in North Carolina. Beanie Odell, Duncan Wickel (who doubles on uilleann pipes) and Vincent Fogarty make a splendid job of grand old tunes: The Boys of Ballisodare, The 12 Pins, The Keys to the Convent, McGlinchey's Hornpipe, all played as well as you might find in Galway, Cork or Dublin. There is a slight American accent at times, wonderful versions of Lad O'Beirne's and The Chicago Reel for instance, and unusual settings of The Foxhunter's Jig and The Blackbird. Pickiness aside, this is a brilliant CD of raw acoustic Irish music. Could have done with some sleeve notes, though ...
Odell and Wickel play tight resonant duets, producing a powerful melody line with or without guest Aaron Olwell on flute and concertina. The Sporting Pitchfork and The Slopes of Sliabh Luachra are magnificent jigs, followed by John McEvoy's excellent Spotted Dog, and The Red Wellies keep the lift and drive throughout. Alice's Reel is taken at a lovely slow pace which Frankie Gavin would surely approve of. Out in the Night is played almost as well as the classic Fisherstreet version. Lucky in Love forms the climax of a prodigious set of reels, and ends this album in rare style. The only time The Red Wellies really show their mountain roots (albeit with good dentistry) is on the glorious Creole-style hornpipe The Gypsy Princess which struts its stuff like a Southern belle. Highly recommended: myspace has samples under "RedWelliesIrish", and an email address. Give these folks a holler, and see if the echo sounds Irish to you!
Lauren MacColl "Strewn with Ribbons"
For her second recording, this BBC award-winning highland fiddler has gone back to early 19th century manuscripts for most of the material. There are six of Lauren's own compositions here, but the rest come from four recently republished collections of East Highlands music. Anyone who thinks there are no great old tunes left to discover should revise their opinion after hearing this CD: forgotten reels, strathspeys, airs and jigs come alive in Lauren's hands. There's that same sweetness of fiddle tone which has always been her hallmark, and a supremely delicate touch on the bow, backed by Barry Reid's guitar and Mhairi Hall on keyboards. If Lauren MacColl's debut recording was a revelation, this follow-up CD underlines her growing reputation as one of today's finest fiddlers.
Own Label; MBR2CD; Playing time: 51 min
It's hard to think of a better young slow air player than Lauren. Inspired by Aly Bain, she has the same firm but gentle control, the same emphasis on tone and tunefulness. Oigfhear a'Chuil Duinn opens this album, the first of five haunting airs here: two from Gaelic songs, two fiddle laments, and Lauren's own Honesty, named for the plant. There are a couple of charming dance tunes played at almost slow-air speed too: Fair an' Lucky and Hard to the Bone, both instant winners. Lauren picks up the pace on other melodies, but never loses her assured touch. William's Love and Miss Nicholson are fine driving reels, Mr Sinclair Younger and Strathbogie have that characteristic North-East bounce, and there's plenty of snap in the strathspeys and jigs too. I'll definitely put Strewn with Ribbons on my 2009 top ten list! There's more I could mention, but you can find out all about this beautifully presented CD at www.laurenmaccoll.co.uk including samples and mail-order.
Willie Kelly & Mike Rafferty "The New Broom"
Own Label; Playing time: 51 min
East Galway fluter Mike Rafferty has lived in New Jersey for most of his life, but he hasn't lost the feel of the music he grew up with. Mike has been at the heart of Irish American music for several decades now, and here he's joined by comparative newcomer Willie Kelly on fiddle. Willie spiced up a recording of Mike and daughter Mary a few years back, and he brings a combination of youthful drive and mature expression to this duet album. Donal Clancy's guitar adds the finishing touches.
There are a lot of old style tunes here, played in the old-fashioned way which is back in vogue just now. Maids on the Green, The Cook in the Kitchen and Darby the Driver are stately old jigs. Speed the Plough, The Peeler's Jacket and Bonnie Anne are similarly venerable reels, appearing on old recordings but largely neglected these days. The New Broom provides a modern record of an acknowledged master from an era when these tunes were the staple fare of dance musicians and showbands. The title comes from a Vincent Broderick hornpipe, and there are some lovely examples of that form here: An Buachaill Dreoite and Pound Hill in particular.
Willie and Mike also deliver many current Irish American favourites on this CD. Ed Reavy's reel Reilly of the White Hill is one such, followed by a lovely lyrical interpretation of Martin Wynne's. Another is The Floating Crowbar, popular in recordings and sessions just now. There are also some rarities here, including Jimmy McBride's and Tony Molloy's, both named for the source and unrecorded elsewhere as far as I know. Composers Paddy O'Brien (Tipperary) and Sean Ryan have a couple of tunes each here, as does John Brady from Offaly whose Tullamore Harbour and View Across the Valley are both charming and new to me. Lots of old favourites, plenty of surprises, and grand playing throughout: The New Broom certainly makes its mark.
Donal Murphy "Happy Hour"
Own label; DMR001; 2009
Long-time box player with Sliabh Notes, and more recently with 4 Men & A Dog, Donal Murphy plays in a distinct Munster style. His solo debut includes more slides and polkas than reels, and the reels also have that delightful Sliabh Luachra bounce! John McGrath's, Kilcoon and Milltown Session are a case in point, crisp and lively, recalling Cork-based bands such as Nomos, The Four Star Trio, and even North Cregg. The Plough and the Stars is a reel which I associate strongly with Munster box-players, and it forms the heart of a big bouncy set which ends this CD. In between are plenty of rollicking good-time tunes: Cuz Teahan's Slide, The Tailor's Twist (one of my favourite hornpipes), King of the Pipers, and the Grand Ole Opry tune Hale's Rag which translates perfectly to the two-row box. The Bank of Turf ends a lovely trio of jigs, and I should mention Donal's own charming Valentia Jig too. Mixed medleys are becoming more common on Irish recordings, and there's a cracking one here, as well as a fine slow air, so variety is not lacking on Happy Hour. Nor is great accompaniment, with Steve Cooney and Tim Edey on guitars, while a couple of tracks feature Brian McGrath and the Murphy clan on banjo, fiddle, flute and mandolin. My favourite track is one of these, a lovely set of slides culminating in a Johnny O'Leary classic, a real Sliabh Luachra session sound. Happy Hour indeed, well named and well played: well worth checking out.
Dean Warner "Northern Box"
Own label; 2009; Playing time: 42 min
All-Ireland Champion piano accordionist in 2005, Leeds man Dean Warner now lives in County Armagh and is joined by several Ulster musicians on this recording. Dean plays in a very fluid style, with rolls and dots flattened out in many places, well suited to reels but less pleasing on hornpipes in my opinion. He certainly has a good ear for a tune: James McMahon's Jig, The Lavourette, and The Horse's Leotard are unusual ones which Dean has picked out for his debut recording, and they sparkle. The Caves of Kiltanon is a jig he played as a young soloist, a splendid composition by Paddy Canny, which fully deserves a track to itself here.
Reels are definitely the strongest aspect of this album, and there are some beauties: The Palm Tree, I'm Waiting For You, Pauline's Place, The Lobster, and more. The first five tunes on Northern Box are all reels, all first class, sourced from such distinguished figures as Billy McComisley, Paddy O'Brien (Offaly), Paddy O'Brien (Tipp), Seamus Connolly and Charlie Lennon. Dean rings the changes with Michael Harrison on fiddle, Daire McGeown on banjo, and some sterling piano accompinament from Ryan Molloy. There are times when the box lags just behind the beat, and the flattened-out hornpipes are a low point for me, but all in all this CD is a very fine debut and a trove of great music. Well worth seeking out, especially for fans of the piano box: www.deanwarner.com now has samples and contact info..
Alan Kelly "After the Morning"
In relaxed mood, Roscommon accordionist Alan Kelly's third solo CD is gentler than you might expect. A couple of his own laid-back jigs lead up to The Mountain Top and The Jolly Tinker, but even these toe-tapping reels don't get Alan's piano box out of third gear. The first of two languid vocal tracks features Eddi Reader in a modern docuballad with a fascinating historical background, sung somewhere between Barlinnie and Baton Rouge. Skipping ahead, Kris Drever delivers the traditional Nova Scotian miner's song Caledonia in dark dreaming tones while Alan mimics church organ and blues harp. In between lies a microcosm of After the Morning: Alan's poignant air Eolann, a pair of old-time dance tunes reinforcing the Louisiana connection, another two Kelly compositions (a Tuscan-inspired waltz and a mildly sympathetic jig), and a second set of Irish reels.
Black Box Music;
BBM004; 2009; Playing time: 47 min
By now the groove is established and you're happily cruising through comforting and assured musical scenery, not worrying which country you're in or whether the backdrop is flute'n'fiddle or bass'n'drums. The arrangements are world class, as are the guest musicians, and Ireland is always somewhere in the mix. The final four tracks of After the Morning are a breathtaking voyage up the west coast of Europe. First you're in Asturias for the virtuoso fiesta dance Jota da Maia, then on to Brittany for the fiddle and accordion magic of Christian Le Maitre's air Tana and Henri Léon's swirling dance tune Son Ar Rost, before disembarking back in Roscommon as New Year's Day ends this recording. Each of the dozen tracks here is a work of art, carefully crafted and polished: no fireworks, no grand gestures, and the accordion isn't always centre stage, but Alan Kelly is in total control throughout, doing what he does best, and I love it. You can find out more at Black Box Music, or at Alankellymusic on myspace.
GO 1608; 2008; 13 tracks, 42 min
This Danish 5-piece has a classic dance band line-up of accordion, fiddle, guitar, bass and drums. Their music is classic too, old Danish tunes with a compelling beat, great for dancing or for listening. Danish music is similar in many ways to the best of English music - just look at Suffolk, Newcastle and Denmark on a fishing chart, and work out how much traffic there must have been across the North Sea. Baltinget is a modest local dance band, and I'm sure there are others equally good in Denmark, but the quality of their playing and arrangements is comparable with top English groups like Spiers & Boden or Steamchicken.
The material here is all instrumental, a mixture of reels, rants, hornpipes, jigs, waltzes and polkas which would all be at home in an English setting. Klittur could stand in for several Suffolk tunes, La Fille de Quinze Ans makes a very respectable Anglo-French jig and shows that musical traffic with Denmark was not all one way, Reels contains a variant of Fisher's Hornpipe, and Powerpolsk reminds me strongly of the Barely Works repertoire. Other tracks here are more obviously Scandinavian or Germanic: Jacobsen og Olsen is Danish in more than name, Taprisør likewise, and there are several attractive melodies in triple time with a distinctive Danish edge.
Touches of Irish and even American cross-over are also audible on Alive, but most of all it shows the impressive range of Danish music and the enviable skill of these musicians. About half this album was recorded live, giving added atmosphere and spontaneity. I recommend Baltinget to anyone who enjoys good fiddle and accordion music, and anyone who thinks English music could be better. This is inspiring stuff. Sleeve notes are conveniently in English too!
Catherine Fraser & Duncan Smith "Rhymes & Reasons"
Cromarty Records; CRM091; 2009; 11 tracks; 52 min
From Australia, Catherine Fraser plays Scottish fiddle like a native and Duncan Smith adds sensitive keyboards. This is their fourth recording together, and continues the combination of old dance tunes with modern compositions from Catherine and others. The reels, jigs and strathspeys set my toes tapping, and the slower pieces are beautifully played. They open with a varied quartet of jigs including William Marshall's 18th-century masterpiece Miss Gordon of Park and Tony Sullivan's modern classic The Butlers of Glen Avenue, and they follow up with the first of three slow airs by Catherine: The Hills of Kaitoke, a really gorgeous melody. Another Sully tune The Roaring Barmaid makes an appearance later, in a set of three new jigs which ends with Ian Lowthian's catchy Return to the Stewartry.
Catherine and Duncan are joined by some well-known guests: cellist Natalie Haas, fiddler Hanneke Cassel, percussionist Eric Breton, and guitarist Tony McManus who works his magic on the slow strathspey Rothiemurchis' Rant. Natalie leads into The Kirrie Gem, another of Catherine's beautiful airs. There are two more notable slow pieces before the finish, a lovely arrangement of This Ae Nicht and Catherine's tune Dancing with George which hints at gutsy double-stopping but stays light and airy throughout. Skipping past a couple of tasty reel sets, we come to the final fling: a flirtation with electronic music, nothing too outrageous, recalling Alasdair Fraser's 1987 album The Road North. In fact, there are quite a few echoes of Alasdair's playing on Rhymes & Reasons - not entirely surprising, as this CD was produced by Alasdair's pupil Laura Risk. The sweet tone on Donald Don of Bohunting and the combination of playfulness and drive on Kissing is the Best of A' clearly show the Fraser resemblance: I can't think of a higher compliment. Heartily recommended, and her website has more information.
Grainne Hambly & William Jackson "Music from Ireland & Scotland"
Two excellent harpists, one Scottish and one Irish, combine here to produce a charming album. With whistle, concertina and bouzouki, this untitled CD is also surprisingly punchy in places: Grainne rattles through reels and jigs on the old hexagonal caterpillar, while Billy backs her beautifully on both bouzouki and harp. I say Billy because that's how he was known in his Ossian days, and there are several revisits to the Ossian era here. This CD opens with Fair Gentle Ailidh, a delightful air from the 1700s which was recorded by The Chieftains in 1971. Later on we find Mull of the Woods as a harp and concertina duet, making a welcome comeback from Ossian's 1981 Seal Song LP. Towards the end of this collection there is a gorgeous pair of Scottish tunes collected in the 1700s: Ge Do Theid Mi Do M'Leabaidh, recorded by Battlefield in 1978, followed by Drunk at Night and Dry in the Morning from Ossian's 1982 LP Dove Across the Water. So a real nostalgia trip.
Mill Records; MRCD 020; 2009; 12 tracks; 47 min
Grainne's three previous solo recordings are more recent, but her gentle modern Irish harping fits perfectly with the Scottish style. Refreshing touches abound, including a tasty pair of slow reels and the cheeky slip-jig Elizabeth Kelly's Favourite which ends the album.. This recording is split between soaring airs and more down-to-earth dance music, and both genres are beautifully handled. Cam Ye By Atholl, a slow jig version of the Donegal march Prince Charlie, is a rare and lovely piece. Track 7 shows the other aspect of Hambly and Jackson's music, a pair of jaunty reels on concertina and harp: Sporting Nell and Bobby Casey's Hairy-Chested Frog, one of a handful of modern tunes here. There are plenty more highlights on this album, so check it out yourself at www.grainnehambly.com - highly recommended, and of course a perfect Christmas present.
A new band is always intriguing, but this one promises something special. Padraig Rynne and Tola Custy on concertina and fiddle are well known names, stalwarts of Clare music. Emerging bousouker Karol Lynch and Breton fluter fantastic Sylvain Barou bring less predictable facets to Guidewires. The group is tied together by Belfast guitarist Paul McSherry: no better man for the job. Recorded live in Ennis, this album presents a purely instrumental mix of original tunes, compositions by a wide range of modern celtic composers, and some pure traditional pieces. The result is a fabulous hour of exciting music.
Own Label; GWMCD001; 2009; 12 tracks; 59 min
Starting with a superb flat-picked version of Paul's own tune Hoodwinked, Guidewires launch into a lovely Brendan Ring composition before Sylvain's Recession Jig ends the first set. Padraig shares the credits with Mike McGoldrick on a pair of powerful new reels, followed by Tola's beautiful slow version of Fred Finn's. After a couple of Riverdance-style jigs, and a haunting selection of Breton tunes with that raw Atlantic edge, Karol's composition Marbh Bán adds a moment of calm and a first taste of Balkan rhythms. There's no mistaking the Bulgarian beat on Vicki's World, and the lads follow it with the Eastern European favoutite Dance of Suleyman. A pan-celtic track ending with Cariáu Llaniscu (from Asturia I think) brings us to a hint of Donegal and Padraig's lyrical Liosbeg, before the second of three Donal Lunny melodies re-introduces the Balkan theme. Sylvain Barou's exceptional flute tone is on show again with two Brian Finnegan tunes, Marga's Moment and the jaunty Crooked Still Reel, before Mr Lunny takes a final royalty on Step Ahead Polka. Guidewires wrap it up with a set of classic reels, Padraig to the fore on Dinny O'Brien's before Tola growls in with McDonagh's and Sylvain takes an occasional breath during Bill Harte's.
Magnificent throughout, this quintet offers variety and brilliance on every track. All five members perform exceptionally here, and the ensemble sound is a dream. Comparisons with Danú, Nomos and even Lúnasa wouldn't be unreasonable: Guidewires could give anyone a run for their money. This debut CD is 2009 top ten material. The website has lots more info and a few well-hidden samples.
Wendy Stewart & Gary West "Hinterlands"
Partners in Edinburgh band Ceolbeg in the nineties, harpist Wendy Stewart and piper Gary West share a taste for authentic Scottish music and exciting arrangements, and that's pretty much what Hinterlands delivers. The core of clarsach and smallpipes is swelled by highland pipes, whistle, concertina, and occasional guests. Starting with Gordon Duncan's air Full Moon Down Under, this recording spans five centuries of Scottish music: Port and Canaries from the renaissance, through Burns and Bobby MacLeod, to new compositions by Matt Seattle, Gordon Duncan, and a tune Gary composed with his brother Niall.
Own Label; MCRCD001; 2009; 13 tracks; 61 min
The Ceolbeg sound is still evident on many tracks, a combination of driving pipes and deep throbbing harp with some fine drumming from the band's drummer Jim Walker. Murdo Mackenzie of Torridon has a strong pipe-bnad swagger to it, and Miss Proud caps a set of steaming pipe reels. Other tracks are more stately: Lancashire Hornpipes is a pair of old English dance tunes in 3/2, and Port Set chains three ancient harp tunes in a powerful solo from Wendy. Gary takes the lead on another cross-border piece, the recently-composed waltz Goodwife of Morpeth by Matt Seattle, which also features Christine Hanson on cello.
Although Wendy and Gary were not particularly known for their singing with Ceolbeg, Hinterlands includes six vocal pieces: four sung by Wendy, and two from Gary. Don't expect solo vocal careers from either of these guys just yet, but there's plenty to recommend the songs here. Of the two Burns numbers Wendy sings, Ae Fond Kiss is the better known but it's set here to an unfamiliar Gaelic melody. The Slave's Lament is paired with a Cuban tango, dark and eerie on harp and cello. There's a darker side to Wendy's unusual setting of Marie Hamilton too, a traditional tale of scandal and death in the royal household, and Gary's choice of The Twa Sisters isn't much cheerier. Hinterlands finishes with a short six-minute piobaireachd on highland pipes and harp, a beautiful piece which only deepens the controversy over which of these noble instruments spawned this highest form of Scottish music.
The Martin Green Machine "First Sighting"
28; 2009; 10 tracks; 49 min
Innovative, experimental, and fun. Martin Green, piano accordion demon with Lau, has produced a genre-defying album which combines humour, electronic effects, good old-fashioned music, and weirdness. A lot of weirdness. Skip track 1 - we'll come back to it - and go straight to 23A, a lovely piece of Scottish accordion music which wanders into a Tapas bar and ends up paying protection money to Argentine gangsters. Mac the Nerd eventually re-emerges, a couple of tequilas short of the gutter, and wanders off to catch the last bus home, I assume. The horn section sticks around for Quayle Paint, topping and tailing a song about love and art from Inge Thomson, before Horse, a long and complex piece with more female vocals and a catchy little musical helter-skelter.
Give Up the Body is a bit of fun with hints of Madness in the Ska sense, very entertaining. Rory is altogether weird, but PSP gets back to the Green Machine core groove of funky accordion, blaring brass and female vocals. I wrote that with a straight face until I heard the kindergarten choir bit. Can't Use A Map starts from a false premise, and kind of gets lost up a few blind alleys, not surprisingly. Shudder is a fascinating experiment gone right, and The Disappearing Platelayer ends this recording in suitably surreal fashion.
Now you're ready for track 1, Repetition, the place where all Martin's crazier ideas ended up, perhaps the product of too much genius, perhaps just a whole lot of fun. It seems to celebrate the status of the accordion as the Inspector Clouseau of instruments: not glamorous or sophisticated, but somehow it gets the job done, and ends up a hero surrounded by adoring women. Something like that, anyway. Try it and see! Appealing artwork, a healthy dose of self-knowledge, and a built-in bedtime story make this CD an intriguing experience, almost irresistible for accordion aficionados.
Mick, Louise & Michelle Mulcahy "Reelin' in Tradition"
CICD 180; 2009; 16 tracks, 50 min
This is the third album from box-player Mick Mulcahy and his daughters Michelle and Louise. More of the same? Yes, if we're talking about straight trad Irish jigs and reels, this CD is very similar to their 2000 and 2005 recordings, but the last ten years have only increased the skill and confidence of Mick's talented offspring. Their trio sound is busy enough to fill fifty minutes, and is augmented by Cyril O'Donoghue's bouzouki and Tommy Hayes' percussion. Mick sticks to his button box, but the girls swap between flute and pipes, or between Michelle's mini orchestra of concertina, fiddle, harp and piano.
There's a lovely range of tunes here: the tastiest version I've heard of The Bush in Bloom, two contrasting takes on Kitty Lie Over, a mighty set of reels starting with The Pullet, and a gentle jig learnt from the late great Jerry Holland are among the highlights. With a scattering of solo tracks, a pair of hornpipes and a charming harp air, there's plenty of variety on this recording despite a preponderance of reels and jigs. The polka set was a low point for me, but there are more than enough highs to make up for it. I'll pick out a watertight duet from pipes and fiddle on The Wexford Lasses, this season's most popular jig James McMahon's leading into the powerful John McKenna's, and the final set of big reels recorded live with Clare dancers. Very well played, very traditional, and very welcome indeed!
Joanie Madden, Brian Conway, Billy McComiskey & Brendan Dolan "Pride of New York"
4522; 2009; 13 tracks; 55 min
Okay, first the easy bit. This is an excellent CD of pure-drop tunes from the New York Irish community. Pride of New York is fronted by three icons of off-shore Connemara music: Joanie Madden on flutes, Billy McComiskey on button box, and Brian Conway on fiddle, backed up by Brendan "Felixson" Dolan on the old tin pan. Grand old melodies, many of them with New York associations, are joined by a few newer compositions. The album kicks off with Redican's, and there are a couple more references to this great fiddler and composer before the end. Reels and jigs are interspersed with hornpipes, marches, and even a waltz. Joanie Madden plays an evocative version of the air Slán le Máigh on the high D whistle. Billy and Brian take their solos on reels and hornpipes respectively: a lovely measured pair of Martin Mulhaire compositions, and three challenging traditional favourites. Pride of New York finish up with a powerful and inventive set of reels: Considine's Grove, The Trip to Durrow, the third of Martin Wynne's famous trio, and Finbar Dwyer's fine Bere Island Reel.
Now, with musicians this good, people unreasonably expect perfection and I can afford to be a bit picky. My first niggle is with the hornpipes: if you don't emphasise the dotted rhythm, then a hornpipe is just a rather jumpy reel, especially when it's played at virtuoso speed. Some of the hornpipes on this recording seem to be flattened out and speeded up to their detriment. My second niggle concerns the tempo, particularly in some of the reels: these old tunes weren't always meant to be played at full speed, and a slightly slower tempo would allow more expression. Taken at this speed The Road to Garrison must surely be downhill all the way, and Dan Breen's Reel is so quick that you'd think it was already The Steeplechase. These are just small grumbles about a very fine and refreshing recording: it's great to hear such outstanding musicians applying themselves to the classic Irish repertoire, and even dusting off some neglected clan marches and slip jigs. Pride of New York clearly deserve their name, and I hope to see them over here in the near future!
Tsuumi Sound System "Growing Up"
Own Label; TSS001; 2009; 13 tracks; 52 min
It's fun, it's funky, it's fiddle-led, and it's Finnish. Who else would it be? If you've never heard of Tsuumi Sound System before, join the club - but prepare to be impressed. This eight-piece from the land of manic depression is on its second album, and whilst the core of their music is clearly Nordic they've collected a few other influences on the way. Growing Up ranges from the Arctic to the Middle East, skating and swirling through most European fiddle and accordion styles. Six members of Tsuumi Sound System share the composing credits, not just the fiddlers and keyboardists, but also the sax-player and drummer. Natten vid Hagelberg is a charming air, and Valse Cinque mixes French dance music with irregular rhythms. Although every track is original, most of TSS's output is high-energy thumping polska-style dance music: the title track is a good example, as are Northling, Skyfixer, and indeed much of the rest of this recording.
Powerful fiddling, full throbbing accordion, a range of rock and traditional back lines, with double helpings of sax and cello, Growing Up is fifty minutes of excellent entertainment. The fiddling never reaches the demonic pitch of some Celtic players, but it's exciting and technically superb. The melodies have that dark edge which extends as far south as Scotland and Ireland but really has its roots in the troll-haunted ice caverns of Arctic Europe. The arrangements are modern enough to include jazz and techno, but traditional enough to be recognisable as relatives of JPP, Grupa, Varttina and others. The jazz funk of Sicilian Panda and Lau-like melting-pot of Rec 32 contrast starkly with the ebb and flow of Silent Mind and the gentle piano tones of the final Unknown Tomorrow. Not too manic, never depressing, stunningly skilful and a little out of the ordinary, Tsuumi Sound System was an instant favourite in my house: what will you make of it?
© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 11/2009
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