What’s hot – and what’s not – in today’s Celtic music scene!
Hailing from Columbia, South Carolina (Go Gamecocks!), veteran Celt-rockers Syr bring past to present with their latest album, Sentinel. Firmly rooted in old-school trad, the sonic sextet weaves and winds their way through 13 terrific tracks with a twinge of southern twang – both a testament and a tribute to the band’s terroir. And while they aren’t afraid to branch out with moments of modern country, pop, and even reggae, make no mistake; Tir N’aill, Baobhan Sith, Òran Na Gaillinn, and several other songs showcase the group’s commitment to preserving the sounds of yore. The result is a diverse listening experience that bridges the gap between classic and contemporary Celtic music, and one that will excite both older fans and those new to the genre.
While it may be true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, some find a fresh leash on life. Such is the case with Ataraxia, the latest full-length effort from seasoned Irish singer/songwriter Ronan Furlong. A darling of indie music critics for over three decades, Furlong’s mastery on the guitar is matched by his masterful melodies, reminding listeners that there is art in artisanry. The proof is in the proverbial pudding, as the songsmith has crafted 11 new timeless and thought-provoking tunes with lyrical leanings towards history and philosophy. Fans of John Prine and Christy Moore will be touched by the tough and tender, street-smart sonic style that sounds as sure through air pods as upon a small stage in an old pub.
The Bend in the Light
The harp might be the most underrated and least understood instrument in the Celtic music arsenal. Thankfully, there is still strong support for those that write, record, and release albums featuring the famed, multi-stringed mechanism. As such, The Bend in the Light – the recently released recording from Nova Scotia’s Ellen Gibling – is an illumination of sorts. Awash in a musical melange of hops, jigs, reels, airs, and even polkas, the Halifax native leaves no sonic stone unturned in her efforts to bring the instrument up-to-speed with moving and memorable melodies that are certain to stroke listener’s souls. By turns bold and beautiful, the album’s 12 tracks are a nod to the vital role that the instrument still plays in the Celtic musical canon.
Up Down 95
Any band whose bio begins with the words “formed in a dorm room at Boston College” is kind of a must-listen, right? Sure enough, Massachusetts 11-piece Celt-Punk-Rock collective Sláinte comes exactly as advertised. And although there will be inevitable comparisons to fellow Beantown brawlers The Dropkick Murphys, the old-school Irish pub vibe gets high marks on the lo-fi Up Down 95. A well-balanced blend of original songs (Ember, Irish Whiskey, Boston Girl Who Fled to New York) and cover tunes (Flogging Mollys’ Drunken Lullabies, the Pogues’ Streams of Whiskey, and a stirring take on Bruce Springsteen’s classic Atlantic City), the ten-song release holds its own in a genre that can get quite crowded, especially around St. Patrick’s Day. For best results, play at full volume!
Alberta-based trio The McDades have received so many awards and accolades since their inception in 2000 that they must be a wee embarrassed at this point (how typically Canadian, eh?) The Washington Post even called them “the Dizzy Gillespie of the tin whistle.” Though perhaps a bit extreme, the reviewer wasn’t that far off. On their new album, The Empress, The McDades again incorporate such an amazing array of instruments and styles that the music is simply beyond proper description. Woven through the tapestry of the engaging 11-song mosaic, however, is a Celtic thread of traditional melody that firmly cements their legacy as contemporary carriers of classic customs. Vocalist (and violinist) Shannon Johnson just might be one of the finest singers in the genre today.
Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain
As a guitar player myself, my ears are attuned to those who know their way around a fretboard. While my own affinity might lean towards the electric guitar (Jeff Beck, J. Mascis, Pete Townshend, the Edge, Carlos Santana, Thurston Moore, Jimi Hendrix) I have a deep appreciation for acoustic players, if only that the instrument itself is much more difficult to play, let alone master. So, that said, Welsh six-string virtuoso Gwenifer Raymond’s latest recording Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain has been on endless repeat since I first received it a few weeks ago. The fine, finessed fingerpicking flows so fluidly across these 8 torrid tunes that one will either be inspired to pick up a guitar for the first time or quit playing entirely.
Picking up where he left off with his 2020 EP Skail, Scottish singer-songwriter Malcolm MacWatt ups his game with Settler, a selection of 10 songs that bridge the gap between classic Celtic melodies and contemporary Americana. Although the acclaimed songsmith – who was born and bred in Morayshire, with the Highlands and the North Sea on his doorstep – is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, composer, and arranger all his own, he is joined here by musical heavyweights Eliza Carthy, Gretchen Peters, Kris Drever, Jaimee Harris, and Laura Cantrell. The result is a masterful and moving lo-fi, Trans-Atlantic collection that touches upon themes of wonder, wanderlust, nature, beauty, time, love, and redemption. Spirited and soulful, the new recording will resonate with fans of Wilco and The Waterboys.
Cave of Gold
Edinburgh piper, whistler, composer, and instructor Eddie Seaman kicks it old-school with this terrific and timeless 11-track studio recording. From the opening salvos of Bryce Jigs to the closing drones of Salute to Donald, the mega-talented musician and his band take listeners back in time through the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland. Highlights here include Fiddle Bee, O Dwyer of the Glen, Langstom’s Pony, and Unknown Warrior. The masterpiece, however, is the collection’s centerpiece – Uamh an Oir (Cave of Gold) – which showcases the fine lush lilt of Gaelic singer Maeve Mackinnon. More than the sum of its parts, the new album is a vibrant and vital effort to preserve and promote Celtic culture in an age when music has become a disposable commodity.
Canadian songstress Karen Myatt explores the feminine spirit with her stunning sophomore recording Femoir. Soulful, smart, spirited, sexy, and sassy, the album’s 14 terrific tracks assess the art of the anima with an array of astonishingly original songs and smooth standards. With the vocalist’s vital and vibrant melodies shading both strong and soft atop a moody melange of guitars, keys, horns, bass, and percussion, the release has already drawn great acclaim from critics, listeners, and industry insiders; Cassandra Wilson calls the new disc “Absolutely stunning! Mesmerizing…” and Arts East says “this is the finest and most important recording to emerge from Canada in years…” Indeed – bold and beautiful, Femoir is a masterful and meaningful work of melodic art and Myatt is a musical tour-de-force.
Synth-Pop was never really my thing. Sure, there have been a number of fantastic and influential bands of that genre over the years (Joy Division, Ultravox, OMD, Eurythmics, etc.), however there were too many others that struck me as simple, superficial, and sonically subpar. That said, I believe it was Bruce Springsteen who noted that if a tune can stand on its own with just a voice and a single instrument then it will likely stand the test of time. That seems to be the case with Screen Violence; buried beneath a boisterous barrage of synthesizers, drum machines, vocoders, and a myriad of other electronic instruments, are ten architecturally and artistically sound pieces that might be better served stripped down to their skin and bones.
Postcards From Ireland
Showcasing the lovely lilt of the newest member of Celtic Woman, Muirgen O’Mahony, Postcards From Ireland is a return to roots for the Irish supergroup. From the opening acapella of The Dawning of the Day to the closing chorus of Black is the Colour, the uber-talented quartet (and their equally gifted band) transports listeners back in time through the mists and myths of the Emerald Isle. Similarly, Bonny Portmore, Mise Eire, The Calm of the Day, and Angel, will surely bring a tear to the eyes of ex-pats everywhere. While some won’t find the formulaic approach to writing, recording, and performing to their taste, there is simply no arguing or understating the importance of albums like this towards the promotion and preservation of Celtic culture.
Celtic Kitchen Party
Here in Nova Scotia, kitchen parties can spring-up spontaneously anytime, anywhere, and for any reason. All that is required are a few core ingredients; neighbours (or strangers!), a circle of chairs, musical instruments (fiddle, guitar, piano, accordion, bodhrán, spoons), and – of course – a shot or two (or six) of the sweet stuff. All those elements, and more, are on the table with Celtic Kitchen Party’s third full-length recording Last Call. From classic trad (Dirty Old Town, Whisky in the Jar) to more contemporary tunes (Covid-19 Shanty, The Immigrant), the Ontario-based sextet will have listeners rollicking and rolling until the wee hours of the morning. Amidst these darkest of days, there is something to be said for the light of old-school, good time music.
Canadian songstress Karen Myatt explores the feminine spirit with her stunning sophomore recording Femoir. Soulful, smart, spirited, sexy, and sassy, the album’s 14 terrific tracks assess the art of the anima with an array of astonishingly original songs and smooth standards. With the vocalist’s vital and vibrant melodies shading both strong and soft atop a moody melange of guitars, keys, horns, bass, and percussion, the release has already drawn great acclaim from critics, listeners, and industry insiders; Cassandra Wilson calls the new disc “Absolutely stunning! Mesmerizing…” and Arts East says “this is the finest and most important recording to emerge from Canada in years…” Indeed – bold and beautiful, Femoir is a masterful and meaningful work of melodic art and Myatt is a musical tour-de-force.
It Won’t Always Be Like This
There has been a lot of hype surrounding the first full-length release from Dublin quartet Inhaler. Thankfully, that excitement is more than merited, as the 11-song album delivers a post-power-pop punch of “all killer, no filler.” A sonic swirl of style and substance, It Won’t Always Be Like This showcases a songwriting brilliance that hasn’t been seen or heard since the early days of U2. Fitting, perhaps, as lead vocalist Elijah Hewson is the son of U2’s formidable front man Bono. Dad took a hands-off approach, however, and the result is a recording that both pays tribute to – and builds upon – the city’s rich rock roots. And though the apple may never fall too far from the tree, just don’t call them U22.
While the musical marketplace may be flooded with folksy singer/songwriter types these days – everyone with a guitar and a home studio seems to have hunkered down creatively during the COVID-19 pandemic – a number of diamond-in-the-rough recordings have emerged from lockdown. Welsh/Australian troubadour Feralman has teed up ten terrific tracks that weave and wind their way through themes of love, loss, liberation, and redemption. Honest and heartfelt, Chapters 35-43 pays homage to the minstrel’s artistic ancestors – Ben Harper, Hozier, Damien Rice, Luka Bloom – all the while establishing him as a distinct and unique voice on the Celtic musical landscape, and reminding listeners that, despite the deluge of aural options on Spotify and other streaming sites, there is always space for soulful sounds.
Celtic Colours Live – Volume Eight
Every year the good folks at Celtic Colours International Festival send me a review copy of their latest anthology and every year I am impressed with the performances, choice of material, and production quality – even more so this year, given the challenging circumstances of the past while. Featuring an array of artists from across the globe, including Nuala Kennedy, Vishten, Troy and Kendra MacGillivray, Andrea Beaton, Mec Lir, J.P Cormier, the Barra MacNeils, and many more, this solid selection of 14 songs highlights the diversity of Celtic music. Listeners, both young and old, will love the musical mélange of jigs, reels, and ballads – the sure soundtrack of a people, a place, a time, and a culture, that is at a creatively spectacular crossroad.
Music remains a family affair for Celtic Folk crossover artists The Meadows. The four brethren from southwest Wales – Melody, Fantasia, Harvey, and Titania Meadows – each bring their individual voices to the 11 traditional tunes on Dreamless Days. Lush and lilting vocals lay atop a gentle bed of flutes, piano, violins, guitars, whistles, recorders, bodhrán, and the ocarina, and listeners are likely to be swept off to distant lands of long-ago. Highlights here include Castell Dryslwyn, Merlin’s Oak, Gelli Aur, and the title track – a haunting ballad that showcases both beautiful melodies and homespun harmonies. Although family bands aren’t unusual on the musical landscape (Bee Gees, Gallaghers, Jacksons, Osmonds, Partridges, etc) there are clearly some sonic siblings that get along better than others.
Latest Record Project Vol. 1
It has been a half-century since Van the Man released his landmark album Tupelo Honey. Since that time, the Belfast Bard has produced over three dozen recordings and, in the process, has redefined the term “White Soul.” His newest effort – the aptly titled Latest Record Project Vol. 1 – honours that tradition with 28 terrific tunes that find the songsmith both on familiar ground and fresh turf. Putting aside the silliness surrounding his anti-vaccine anthem, Where Have All the Rebels Gone, Morrison continues to grow and shine as a musical artisan, with little chance of slowing down soon. Thankfully, and unlike many of his aging peers, he refuses to repackage himself for profit. Instead, he is committed to carving out character, and not caricature.
Surrounded By Time
After the death of his wife in 2016, Tom Jones could have been forgiven for calling it a career. Instead, after some time off, the Welsh crooner went back to work. Following a few months of touring, Jones holed-up with his son and a supporting cast of superb studio musicians. The resulting recording, Surrounded By Time (his 41st!) is a critically-acclaimed, albeit curious collection of cover songs that are clearly near and dear to the singer’s heart. As such, many of the melodies will seem unfamiliar to most. However, audiences will surely savour the 81-year old’s takes on tunes by Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan, as well as his stirring version of The Waterboys’ classic oceanic ode This is the Sea. Well played Sir Thomas!
Back to the Harbour
There is a reason why Newfoundland’s favourite son Alan Doyle gets so much love here at Celtic Life International. Along with a bountiful back-catalogue of music from his days fronting Great Big Sea, the Petty Harbour native has been prolific since going solo, putting out a string of strong albums and books. Produced by multi-award-winning singer/songwriter Joel Plaskett, and featuring musical cohorts Kendal Carson and Cory Tetford, Back to the Harbour showcases six songs that shine a spotlight on Doyle’s softer side. Along with three original compositions, the EP features a trio of acoustic-based cover songs, including works by Ron Hynes, the Everly Brothers, as well as an old-school sea shanty. It is truly a treat to hear the boy from The Rock belting ballads.
Montreal-based Bùmarang know a thing or two about trad. Veterans of the city’s rich and robust Celtic music scene, and having performed with the likes of Michael Bublé, Lhasa de Sela, Cirque du Soleil, among many others, it was only a matter of time before the trio – David Gossage (flute, guitar, whistles), Kate Bevan-Baker (vocals, fiddle), Sarah Pagé (harp, harmonium, bouzouki) – pooled their talents in the studio for their debut recording. The result, Echo Land – a reference to reflections upon, and reverberations of, the past – features 11 hauntingly poignant pieces that are sure to evoke long-dormant emotions from ex-pats everywhere. Fans of Clannad and Enya will be familiar with the moving, mystical melodies, which arise like a morning mist in Donegal.
11 Past the Hour
After turning to poppy hooks and rhythmic samples on her previous two recordings – Life Love Flesh Blood (2017) and Tribal (2014) – Eire’s super songstress returns to her rock ‘n’ roll roots with her most authentic album since 2010’s Mayhem. 11 Past the Hour features 11 tough and tender tunes that showcase May’s strengths as both a singer and songwriter. The title track is gorgeous and gritty, while Made to Love and What We Did in the Dark bring the heat and the beats. However, it is the beautiful, breathy ballads – Diamonds, Can’t Say, Solace – where the Dublin native is at her best, highlighting her lovely and lush lilt through themes of love, loss, regret and redemption. A terrific and triumphant effort!
As a core member of Irish supergroup Celtic Woman, Éabha McMahon enjoyed great success, recording five full albums, filming several hit television specials, performing hundreds of concerts around the world, topping global music charts, and receiving a Grammy nomination. Her debut solo album, Wildflower, is proof that she is more than just a pretty face, however. Featuring all-original material, the organic 13-track release holds its own with strong compositions and solid arrangements, drawing upon both classic and contemporary Celtic melodies and presenting them in a fresh and refreshing light. Brave and bold, the work also benefits from the production skills of Gavin Murphy (Van Morrison, The Corrs, Glen Hansard, Sinead O’Connor, The Chieftains). The moniker AVA, by the way, is the phonetic spelling of Éabha.
Nova Scotia collective Beòlach hit all the right notes on their latest album All Hands. A moving and masterful melange of nine traditional tunes from Ireland, Scotland, and the quartet’s native Cape Breton, the recording features both the individual and collective talents of Wendy MacIsaac (fiddle, piano), Mac Morin (piano, accordion), Màiri Rankin (fiddle), and Matt MacIsaac (bagpipes, whistles, guitar). The band’s gifted line-up alone is a sure-fire formula for success, and the album has already been nominated for a Juno (Canada’s version of the Grammys), 4 East Coast Music Awards (Atlantic Canada’s version of the Junos), and 2 Canadian Folk Music awards. All of the accolades are more than merited and – with any luck – the rest of the world will catch on.
Brigids and Patricias
There have certainly been some uniquely creative female singer/songwriters over the years – Bjork, Laurie Anderson, Jane Siberry and Patti Smith to name but a few – and Ireland’s Edel Meade is a welcome addition to that troupe. From her days busking on Grafton Street in downtown Dublin, through her studies in jazz, and onto her Joni Mitchell and Billie Holiday projects, Meade’s quirky and quaint vocal style and avant-garde approach was evident on her critically acclaimed 2017 debut Blue Fantasia. She takes it to the next level with Brigids and Patricias, and eight-song sojourn of stripped-down original tunes and spoken-word pieces that celebrate the feminine spirit. While perhaps not to everyone’s taste, the album is sure to grow on both new and long-time listeners.
As the vocalist and frontwoman for Scottish supergroup Capercaillie, Karen Matheson has enjoyed creative success both in the studio and on the stage for over three decades. 15 years in the making, Still Time – her fourth solo recording – is both fresh and familiar at once. While her style remains soundly set in Scottish soil (The Aragon Mill, Lassie With the Mint While Locks, Diamond Ring, Ae Fond Kiss), the new album also marks a maturity in material and musicianship for the songstress; Little Gun echoes the haunting Donegal airs of Enya and Clannad, while Laurel to a Wreath is pure pop. However, it is the folky world-beat vibe of the album’s opening track, Cassiopeia Coming Through, that best hints at things to come.
Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18
This album blew my mind. Welsh singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, producer/arranger Carwyn Ellis cut his creative teeth as the driving force behind Colorama, later working with a who’s-who of major artists (the Pretenders, Edwyn Collins, Saint Etienne, etc..) and releasing a strong series of soundtracks also. Following up on his 2019 recording Joai!, Mas is a musical mélange that fuses the Welsh language with South American melodies and rhythms. Against a backdrop of Bossa Nova, Samba, Cumbia, and Tropicalismo, the clever songsmith tackles topics such as climate change, migration, megacities, and more, with 11 powerful and uplifting tunes. The result is a recording that is both poignant and playful. Ellis adheres to the adage first put forth by novelist Tom Robbins that “minds were made to be blown.”
My Lucky Own
If the name Toxic Frogs alone isn’t enough to lift your spirits during the long winter months (on top of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdown), then the rock ‘n’ rollick of this super six-song EP is sure to do the trick. Fun, festive, and best played at maximum volume for full effect, My Lucky Own showcases the raucous and energetic vocals of Ella Beccaria atop a blistering barrage of electric guitars, banjo, violin, bass, and drums. The five-piece female ensemble fires on all cylinders with the title track, as well as The Shamrock’s Jig and Bestie Life. A guest appearance by Finny McConnell of Celt-Punk stalwarts The Mahones on Thank You Humanity takes the album to new heights, making it a must-listen for St. Patrick’s Day.
Driftwood is an apt title for the latest release from American journeyman musician GF (Jeff) Morgan. Having performed music of all genres for the better part of four decades – sharing the stage with the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Asleep at the Wheel, Tommy Makem, Tom Paxton, and New Riders of the Purple Sage – the veteran singer-songwriter weaves his life experiences into a tapestry of 13 superb songs and stories. Highlights here include Blue November Day, Coming of May, and Tommy’s Gone – all of which showcase an artist who is both road worn and travel-weary, and yet – like a true Celtic troubadour – lives to carry the torch of tradition to new generations of listeners. Think Luke Kelly meets Jim Croce.
The Known World Project
The Willow Sessions
If there is a silver lining to the dark clouds brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic it is that musicians of all genres around the world have hunkered down to write and record some of their best work. In 2020, American multi-instrumentalists Allison Johnson and David Ervin brought together some of the finest Celtic performers on the planet – including Chad Johnson, Scooter Muse, Amanda Carlson, Martin McCall, Chris Buckley, Jaycie Skidmore and Cara Wildman – for a virtual collaboration called The Known World Project. Though short in length, the alliance’s debut effort – The Willow Sessions – is long on heart and talent. Here is hoping that this seven-song EP is the first of many recordings to follow from this mega-gifted group of players.
The Tide of Winter
Comprised of vocalist and step-dancer Shannon Lambert-Ryan of Philadelphia, Dublin-born guitarist Fionán de Barra, Cheryl Prashker of Canada on percussion, Jake James of New York on the fiddle, and Caleb Edwards of Nashville on mandolin and vocals, Runa recently celebrated their 10-year anniversary with a greatest hits package called TEN; The Errant Night. The band’s latest recording, The Tide of Winter, is a mix of traditional Christmas tunes and more contemporary takes on the “bitterest of seasons”. The result is a musical melange of thirteen tracks that do more than merely showcase the group’s melodic mastery; rather, they serve up a solid sonic soundtrack of Celtic/Americana that is sure to both delight listeners and keep them warm through the big chill of the coming months.
Barbar ‘O’ Rhum
Journal de B’O’R
Hailing from Toulouse, France, but merging a myriad of musical talent from around the world, Barbar ‘O’ Rhum combine classic Celtic punk rock with contemporary Pirate Metal on their sophomore full length recording Journal de B’O’R. These 11 torrid tracks are sure to rollick and roll listeners looking to bang their heads and tap their toes. Highlights here include Shortage of Rhum, Birdy, The Kraken Hunt, and the brilliantly titled Drink, Kill, Laugh. Although, admittedly, not to everyone’s taste – think the Pogues meets Pirates of the Caribbean – the seven-piece band – fronted by the charismatic and creative Captain Barbedrut – shows no shortage of talent and drive. A quick trip to YouTube confirmed my suspicions; Barbar ‘O’ Rhum are best experienced in concert.
Sounds From Scotland; Volume 1
Kudos to the fine folks at the American Scottish Foundation in New York City for making the most of 2020 by hosting a series of monthly online concerts featuring an array of amazing Celtic musical artists and then piecing together this excellent compilation album. In the first of what is expected to be a regular run of recordings, Sounds From Scotland features some of the finest in both emerging and established Celtic creatives from around the world, including Alan Frew, Hannah Read, Chris Andreucci, Laura McGhee, Noisemaker, John Rush, Colin Hunter, Lisa Kowalski, Reely Jiggered, and Shaz Martin. The initiative succeeds at both sharing the sounds of “ye’ ould country” and supports the participating performers at a time when so many are struggling to survive.
Good Luck Seeker
After a string of disappointments (Modern Blues, 2015 / Out of All This Blue, 2017 / Where the Action Is, 2019), Mike Scott hits all the right notes with Good Luck Seeker, an inspired effort that sees the Scot-turned-Irish troubadour return to roots. Folksy and fun, these 14 tracks run the range from playful (Dennis Hooper) to poignant (My Wanderings in the Weary Land) to poetic (Postcards from the Celtic Dreamland) and profound (The Land of Sunset). Along the way, the bard tips his hat to his muses and musical forebearers Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and John Lennon. While some critics have been rather harsh with the album’s musical meanderings, Scott should be applauded for rekindling the sparks and flames of his sonically adventurous spirit.
Make Anger Great Again
Drawing on his punk and metal roots, Welsh rocker James Kennedy makes a compelling case for the revival of protest music. Spiritually aligned with Woody Guthrie and Joe Strummer, and sonically allied with Rage Against the Machine and Rise Against, Kennedy welds the weight of hard rock with mindful and thought-provoking lyricism. The resulting 11 songs are more than a musical mélange of idea and emotion, and more than a call to arms – instead, Make Anger Great Again is a call to individual action, inviting listeners to reevaluate their values, and consider their options. The album is a reminder that great art should not only reflect the times but betray them also. Similar sentiments take hold in his recently released companion autobiography Noise Damage.
The Celtic Kitchen Party
Lobster Tail and Beer
On their third full-length release, Lobster Tail and Beer, Canada’s The Celtic Kitchen Party come exactly as advertised. A boisterous blend of traditional tunes and original compositions, the 11 songs highlight the band’s devotion to good times during otherwise dark days. The new recording also showcases the quartet’s tremendous talents on their respective instruments; voice, guitar, fiddle, pipes, and drums may never have sounded so good together. Highlights here include Farewell to Nova Scotia, Black Velvet Band, Legend of Brian Boru, and Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya. A stirring version of Sonny’s Dream is a tender and touching tribute to renowned Newfoundland songwriter Ron Hynes. Listeners are invited to kick back with their feet up, crack open a cold one, and get their toes-a- tappin’.
Slip of the Tongue
One has to admire Imelda May for taking risks and reinventing herself repeatedly since her debut release in 2003. Over that time, the Dublin-born and bred singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has dabbled in a myriad of musical genres – including rockabilly, rock, jazz, and pop – and has shared the stage with the likes of U2, Jeff Beck, and many other notable names. Released for 2020’s Record Store Day, Slip of the Tongue is a limited-edition spoken word recording featuring nine original works of poetry set to moody melodies. Heartfelt, homespun, and often humourous, the album highlight’s both May’s understanding of lyrical rhythm as well as her commitment to artistic evolution. A bold, daring and very cool creative endeavour from one of Eire’s most enduring performers.
A Celebration of Endings
Scotland has produced its fair share of great rock ‘n’ roll bands over the years – Nazareth, Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream and The Jesus and Mary Chain to name just a few. However, none achieved the mass popular and critical acclaim enjoyed by alt-rockers Biffy Clyro. The Kilmarnock-based trio has quietly gone about their business for the past 25 years, releasing 8 studio albums and performing to millions of fans around the world. As evidenced on their latest recording, A Celebration of Endings, the band has taken their hard-rockin’ style and sound – seasoned with smart-pop hooks and clever lyrics – to new levels of sonic swagger with 11 terrific tracks of guitar-grinding, drum-driven melodies. A kick-ass effort that is best enjoyed at top volume.
A Hero’s Death
Fans of Joy Division, The Cure, Nick Cave, Sonic Youth and Snow Patrol will surely savour A Hero’s Death, the sophomore release from Fontaines D.C. Since forming in 2017, the Dublin-based quintet has established itself with their mix of moody and melancholic melodies, striking a chord with Millennials and critics alike. The appeal is understandable, and the 11 songs on the new recording sound like soulful stirrings of teen angst in a back alley on a rainy day in Dublin. Highlights include I Don’t Belong, A Lucid Dream, Sunny, and the title track, which makes a compelling case that despair sounds best with an Irish accent. While likely not everyone’s cup of tea, the band has found a home in a generation of dark hearts.
Sunshine and Moss
At the other end of the musical spectrum, though no less poignant or powerful, the four Diver sisters of the Emerald Isle – Angela, Joan, Marie Thérèse and Gráinne – continue to dig deep into their Donegal roots with Sunshine and Moss, their 15th full-length studio recording. Soft and stirring vocals hover like gentle mist over a sonic landscape of guitars, fiddles, accordions, and keyboards. The 11 songs call to mind the rich melodic traditions of the region’s first musical family, the Brennans of Clannad and Enya fame. As such, and like those artists, Screaming Orphans sound as if they have shot right up from the soil, sprouting flowers, and spreading even more colour and light to an already-robust musical garden. Haunting, moving and beautiful.
One of the world’s great musical hot-spots, Cape Breton has produced some of the finest Celtic artists in recent memory, including the likes of Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, Rita MacNeil, the Rankins and many more. Featuring members of regional rockers Slowcoaster and Coig, the terrific new trio Hauler fans the flames of tradition with their first, self-titled, full-length release. As the band’s website aptly states, “Seamlessly blending and bending roots, rock, and traditional Cape Breton Celtic music together into a hearty homemade soup that can dynamically have you hanging off every lyric – or knock you flat on your arse – Hauler, has been simmering on the stove and are now ready to serve themselves up with the release of their debut album.” ‘Nuff said.
In a Lifetime Anthology
Full disclosure: Clannad are my favourite Irish/Celtic band of all time. Alas, as half a century of superb songwriting will attest to, the blatant bias is well deserved. This outstanding anthology is available in a variety of formats; the double CD and double LP options are great for both long time fans and newbies, however the Deluxe edition – which includes 5 CDs, 3 LPs, a 7” single, a beautiful hardcover book, postcards, and a poster – is ideal for those seeking the true sound and spirit of Eire. And though the band has not been as creatively prolific in recent years, vocalist Moya Bennan and her musical siblings have created a powerful, profound, and poignant body of work that stands the test of time.
As a founding member of Emerald Isle supergroup Celtic Woman, Irish vocalist and harpist Orla Fallon is well-acquainted with traditional melodies. The multi award-winning singer is in fine form on her latest, full-length solo recording, Lore. Produced by the legendary Dan Shea (Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Bono, Dusty Springfield, Placido Domingo), these 12 terrific tracks highlight Fallon’s lovely lilt, which sweep over the songs as gently as a light mist moves across the lush Irish landscape. Highlights include the first single Wild Mountain Thyme, the stirring She Moved Through the Fair, and Siúil a Rún, with which the songstress shares her passion for the Gaelic language. Well balanced with both ballads and upbeat numbers, listeners will certainly fall for Fallon’s new takes on older tunes.
Celtica – Pipes Rock!
There are so many great Neo-Celtic bands out there these days it would require an entire edition of our publication just to note them all. With their latest release, Celtic Spirits, multi-national rock ‘n’ rollers Celtica – Pipes Rock! cement their status atop that list alongside the likes of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, the Dropkick Murphys, and the Mahones. Brash, bold, and often beautiful, the new recording’s 13 melodies capture and convey the heart and soul of a people and their place in history. The power of the pipes and the thunder of the drums will surely stir the soul and wet the eyes with pride. Epic in sweep and scope, the songs soar like a spirited, cinematic soundtrack for the seven Celtic nations.
Hot on the heels of Hozier, Damien Rice and other Dublin-based singer/songwriters, Blake’s Fortune has been hailed as Ireland’s “next big thing” since the release of, and overwhelming reception to, his debut album Hello World in 2017. The three-year wait has been well worth it however, as Searcher Dreamer delivers ten moody melodies that will take listeners to new and beautiful musical places. Earthy and ethereal, with a sparse sprinkling of guitars, keyboards, percussion, and evocative vocals, the work does well to reflect both the dark and the light of the current human condition. Though still young, Fortune (whose real name is John Lennon, hence the nom-de-plume) shows an artistic wisdom beyond his years with the understanding that our shadows only emerge in the sun.
The former frontman for super-boyband One Direction may not be a media darling like his past bandmate Harry Styles. However, the Mullingar, Co. Westmeath native makes the case for mega-stardom with his sophomore release, Heartbreak Weather. Chock full o’ catchy pop hooks, bouncy beats, and beautiful ballads, any of these 14 tracks could be slated for mass streaming. And while the singer/songwriter never dives deeper than old-school lyrics on love and love lost, his Irish roots are showing every step of the way; along with the accent, whispers of traditional jigs and reels simmer just below the surface of the melodies. As such, you can take the boy out of the Emerald Isle, but you can never take the Emerald Isle out of the boy.
The Path of Stones
One of Ireland’s finest troubadours, John Doyle, returns to full form with his latest effort, The Path of Stones, a terrific ten-track collection of masterly-crafted melodies. Minimalist in tone – the minstrel is only accompanied by gentle guitars, fiddle, bodhran, cello, bouzouki, harmonium, and keyboards – the album’s stripped-down, bare-bones approach allows the flesh of narrative to rise and shine. What emerges are wonders of sonic architecture; simple and sure structures, sprinkled with Eire soul and spirit, standing tall atop solid musical foundations. The best compositions, it has been noted, require little or no ornamentation. Alas, think Leonard O’Cohen, Tom O’Waits or Townes O’Van Zant. In days of yore, Doyle might have wandered the Irish countryside, sharing stories of the joys and sorrows of simple life.
Celtic Fairy Dream
Celtic Fairy Dream, the latest release from multi award-winning, Texas-based trio 2002, sounds exactly as one might expect with that title. After 27 years, and with a dozen albums already having graced the Billboard charts, the ‘first-family’ of new-age music – Pamela and Randy Copus – have been joined by their daughter Sarah on these ten tracks, raising their musical game to new heights. Melodic and moody, poetic and poignant, the group taps into the genre’s longstanding traditions, crafting both classic and contemporary compositions that are sure to soothe listener’s souls. As stated aptly in the band’s media release for the new recording, “Fans of Enya, Loreena McKennitt and Clannad will find a lot to like in the magical music of 2002.” Thus, ‘nuff said.
After 50 years of writing, rehearsing, recording, and performing music, Scottish singer/songwriter Brian McNeill deserves some sort of award for simple endurance. More so, he deserves full credit for releasing an album of new material to mark the half-century. In addition, he should be lauded for producing No Silence at his home-based state of the art studio, playing almost all of the instruments on the ten tracks, and designing the cover artwork. As for the songs themselves – with guitar, baritone guitar, fiddle, octave fiddle, mandocello, bouzouki and concertina set to traditional jigs, reels, ballads and more – there is ample evidence than you can teach an old dog new tricks. And so, raise a glass to the musical master, and cheers to 50 more magical years.
Subtitled 15 Years of Music & Magic, this 14-song selection celebrates the sweet sounds of one of the most successful groups in Irish history; 12 consecutive number one Billboard recordings, album sales exceeding 10 million, a Grammy nomination and over a billion online streams. Spanning a decade and a half, and showcasing an array of talented group members and musicians, the anthology (and accompanying DVD) showcases classic and contemporary tunes, including May it Be, Dúlamán, You Raise Me Up, Danny Boy, and the group’s stirring, signature rendition of The Parting Glass. Celebration is an excellent collection for either longtime listeners or those who are just learning to love the lilts of these lovely Irish lasses.
Byrne & Kelly
The Ballads Collection
Another amazing anthology from another great Irish group, The Ballads Collection captures the heart and soul of dynamic duo Neil Byrne and Ryan Kelly at their absolute finest. With a dozen previously released tracks, and six newer songs, there is something here for anyone and everyone who loves a good traditional tune. Highlights include The Water is Wide, Belfast, Black is the Colour, The Old Tweed Coat, and the pair’s powerful take on the classic Carrickfergus. Though each are still core, card-carrying members of Emerald Isle supergroup Celtic Thunder, Byrne & Kelly continue to make a strong and compelling case for themselves as solo artists – both are skilled songwriters and masterful musicians.
Gillian Boucher and Bob McNeill
Race for the Sun
There is something to be said for keeping things simple. Canadian fiddler Gillian Boucher and Scottish guitarist Bob McNeill do just that with their latest recording, Race for the Sun, a terrific ten-track trek through traditional peaks and valleys of melody. Now based in New Zealand, the multi award-winning musicians have known and performed with one another for years. That sonic chemistry is apparent with this beautiful blend of old-school airs and upbeat toe-tappers, including Trip to Durrow, Steel & Silver, Emily Bay, and the title track. There is nothing complex or over-the top at play here – subtlety and nuance carry both the day and the tunes, reminding listeners that less can be more, and that music lives in the spaces between the notes.
Having met at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Adam Iredale-Gray (guitar), Elise Boeur (fiddle) and Màiri Chaimbeul (harp) each brought their own unique musical sensibilities to Aerialist’s first recording Groupe Manoeuvre in 2017. That album won a Juno Award – the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. The group takes that hybrid melange of musical influence – including traditional Celtic tunes, Norwegian melodies and prog-jazz (!) – to new heights with their sophomore effort Dear Sienna. While these 11 tracks might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the stirring vocals and sheer musicianship are more than enough to keep the ears attuned for all 36 minutes. Like Bretagne’s brilliant Plantec, Aerialists continue to push the boundaries of Celtic music, taking it to vital and vibrant places.
Irish seanchaí and songstress Helena Byrne crosses over into the world of spirits with her spirited new album Saol Eile. Translated as ‘Afterlife’ – and dedicated to the memory of her late relative Martin Duggan – the 13-track recording transcends time with a series of spoken-word stories from the Emerald Isle’s past and present. Accented by interviews with those who have been touched by supernatural experiences – and tinted with musical tidbits that stir just below the surface – Byrne makes the case for the mystical by tapping into visible links of the invisible world. The lone melody, Molly Malone, is both a bonus track and a reminder that this lovely lass is more than capable of raising the dead with her fine Irish lilt.
Celtic Colours: Volume Seven
Visitors to the Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton often note the tremendous sense of community found across the region. With concerts, workshops and collective lunches on the agenda each fall, it is easy to see why. That sense of togetherness comes across in sonic splendour on the event’s latest anthology, as artists share the spotlight on a number of live tunes. Two stellar bands, Beòlach and Breabach, kick the album off in high style, while The Chieftains team-up with Scottish vocalist Alyth McCormack for a lively version of Red is the Rose. Guitarists J.P. Cormier and Tim Edey also bring the heat with a smokin’ medley. With too many highlights to list, listeners will just have to come experience Maritime hospitality for themselves.
Those with a passion for Cross-Celtic culture will want to wrap their ears around Charlie O’Brien’s latest release, Hy Brasil. Subtitled Songs of the Irish in Latin America – and inspired by both place and history – this terrific 15-track recording is exactly as the title suggests; traditional melodies from the Emerald Isle with some South American flair and flavour. This isn’t Samba, however, as the artist goes old-school with gentle guitars, quiet piano and soft vocals to highlight the mellow melodies. The result is a hypnotic musical journey into the heart of two worlds and into the head of a true artisan; like JJ Cale, Van Morrison or Ry Cooder, O’Brien masterfully crafts each work with enough space that the stories simply tell themselves.
I cannot begin to imagine the number of great recordings that fall through the cracks each year. Thankfully this one didn’t. Recorded in Canada (Ontario, Nova Scotia, PEI) and Sweden, mixed in Montreal, and featuring a myriad of musical guests – including famed fiddler Chrissy Crowley – this super 13-song selection brings the past and present together with both style and substance. An accomplished composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist, Lindsey weaves and winds his way across generations with his original takes on traditional tunes. Highlights here include From Away, East West, Wild Mountain Time, and the rollicking Whiskey Soup. It is rare that an instrumental album captures my attention for repeated listens, but this one has. And, I suppose, that officially makes me a certified “tradhead.”
Three Chords and the Truth
The Bard of Belfast is back with his best work since, well, I wrote those exact same words about a year ago. The 74-year-old, multi award-winning musical master-craftsman has enjoyed a profound and prolific late-life run, releasing seven stunning albums in the last four years alone. Picking up where he left off with 2018’s The Prophet Speaks, ‘Van the Man’ shows both swagger and soul on all 14 songs, with guitars, keyboards, horns, and a 60s-style rhythm section laying a solid foundation for his familiar, easy-going vocals. With too many standout songs to list – and at a time when so many of his peers are pulling out – credit Morrison for not just staying in the game but playing at the top of it.
In celebration of their 3oth anniversary, Atlantic Canadian Celtic crossovers Rawlins Cross have reconnected for a regional reunion tour in support of their new 7-song release Flying Colours. Not content to rest on their musical laurels – the band’s 1993 smash hit Reel ‘n’ Roll is a Maritime mainstay at pubs, kitchen parties and hockey arenas – the sonic sextet brings new tunes to the table – the catchy and playful Love Comes Around the Corner, the gentle, country-ish Been a Long Time, the brooding Course Correction and the brilliant, Wilco-esque I Wonder – all of which showcase the group’s tremendous talent on an array of instruments, including guitars, keyboards, pipes, whistles, the bodhran, and salty vocals that tell tall tales from Canada’s east coast.
Haley Richardson and Quinn Bachand
When the Wind Blows High and Clear
Kudos to Haley Richardson and Quinn Bachand for collaborating on this Celtic collection of creative compositions. Bachand, though still quite young, might be the genre’s finest six-stringer in his native Canada. Richardson, only 17, is the principle fiddler for Riverdance, a multiple All-Ireland champion, and has shared both stage and studio with the likes of The Chieftains and Altan, The dynamic duo plays to their strengths on their debut release, showcasing their respective talents on both traditional arrangements and original tunes. Along with producing the album, Bachand plays guitar, piano, bass, drums, banjo, mandolin, bouzouki, and sings. Richardson’s vocal melodies are as sweet and sure as her fiddle lines. If this recording is any sign, then the future of Celtic music is in good hands.
The Harvard Tapes
After suffering a stroke in 2016, Scottish guitarist, singer, songwriter, actor, musical director, arranger, producer, and engineer Dick Gaughan has been recouping at home. And, after more than 50 years of writing, recording and performing, the multi award-winning artist may well deserve some much-needed time off. In lieu of new material, Greentrax is digging through the vaults to satisfy older and newer audiences. This live recording is from a 1982 concert at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church near Harvard University and features 13 classic tracks, including Erin Go Bragh, Glenlogie, Sliabh na mBan and a number of traditional jigs and reels. The result is both a treat for long-time fans and a great way for newbies to discover the work of a master musical craftsman.
Admittedly, I have never been a big listener of “new-age” Celtic music. In truth, most of my exposure to the genre has been on my (infrequent) visits to the man-spa. However, I did sit down and listen to this three-disc set (Lifesongs, Journey, Reflections) one Sunday morning and was swept away by the gentle melodies. Inspired, I began researching Irish travel packages online, looking at self-drive options through Eire’s south and west. That led to pulling out my family genealogy files. I was then stirred to restart my long-dormant yoga routine before the most bizarre thing occurred; I found myself aching for a massage, a pedicure, a manicure, and an old-school, hot-towel shave. Alas, I booked a man-spa appointment for that afternoon. Thank you Mr.Henderson.
Blue Sun Rises
Nashville-based songstress Debra Lyn returns to her Celtic roots on Blue Sky Rises, her third full-length release for Palette Records. Drawing inspiration from Tennessee’s rich and robust Irish and Scottish heritage, these 11 terrific tracks showcase both Lyn’s penchant for penning a good piece as well as her creative takes on traditional tunes. Highlights here include the title track, The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond, Wayfaring Stranger, and a stirring version of the classic Eire send-off ballad The Parting Glass. Award-winning producer Jeff Silverman – who has worked with the likes of Rick Springfield, The Allman Brothers, Roger Miller and many other notable names – brings out the best in Lyn, laying a steady and solid sonic foundation for the singer’s sweet and shimmering vocals.
The Screaming Orphans
Life is a Carnival
Once upon a time there were four sisters from Ireland; Angela, Joan, Marie Thérèse and Gráinne Diver. The Diver siblings came of age in the community of Bundoran, Co. Donegal, home to the soulful, ethereal sounds of Enya and Clannad. After years of paying their dues on smaller stages across the Emerald Isle, the quartet signed both a publishing contact with Chris Blackwell and a major label deal with Warner Music, and soon began performing and recording alongside the likes of The Chieftains, Christy Moore, Liam O’Maonlai, Sinead O’Connor, Babba Maal and Peter Gabriel. Life is a Carnival is the band’s 14th studio recording; 12 fresh, Celtic-fused folk-rock-pop tunes – where “honey and gravel collide” – that are sure to leave listeners happily ever after.
One of Scotland’s finest sonic exports, Malinky have been quietly going about their musical business, adding to the Celtic cultural canon for two decades. Now, to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary, the quartet has released their fourth full-length album – their first in four years – Handsel. With a little help from six guest singers – including long-timers Hector Riddell and Len Graham, and relative newcomers Ellie Beaton and Cameron Nixon – Malinky seamlessly weave their way through a tapestry of 27 traditional melodies with ease and grace. In particular, listeners will fall in love with the lull and lilt of Begone Bonnie Laddie, The Braes o Broo, The Lang Road Doon and The Fisherman’s Wife. My runaway pick for Celtic recording of the year.
Where the Action Is
On the 30th anniversary of The Waterboys’ seminal album Fisherman’s Blues, Mike Scott and his merry band of tradsters return with a mixed bag of rock, folk, blues and ballads. And while the musical melange is not without its moments and merits – In My Time on Earth is true to heart and form – the end result, which includes a bevy of bizarre remixes and mash-tracks, are ten uneven and uninspired offerings. Though the critics have been kind, with one calling the new recording “another reliably interesting and well-written addition to the band’s latter-day renewal” and another saying it is their ‘best for a while’, it can’t be easy for Scott knowing that his best years as a songwriter are three decades behind him.
A multi award-winning quartet from the heart of Eire’s midlands, JigJam blend the best of traditional Irish music with Bluegrass and Americana in a hybrid genre called ‘I-Grass’. As such, their latest effort – Phoenix – sounds exactly as you might expect; acoustic and slide guitars, banjos, bodhrans, and heartfelt harmonies transport these thirteen terrific original and traditional tracks from ‘ye old country’ to the wild hipster west of the new world and back ‘round again. Highlights here include Someday, Red Paddy on the Ridge, Let it Roll, Greenhill’s Gold, and Tullamore to Boston. A sound selection of songs from a talented troupe that would feel at home in Nashville, Memphis, Dublin or Galway. Be sure to catch them on tour in the coming months.
On Hozier’s first studio recording since 2014’s massively successful, self-titled debut album, the Dublin singer-songwriter hits the ground running with the soulful opening track Nina Cried Power (featuring the Queen of Gospel, Mavis Staples!) From there, wistful vocals, muted drum tracks, subtle melodies and sleight-of-hand guitar work pepper the sophomore effort with the grace of a sure and seasoned troubadour. As such, the ghost of fellow Irishman Van Morrison weaves and winds its way through each of the 14 clever compositions. Indie in spirit, the work is consistent, though not without its shortcomings; while the hipster vibe is cool, it does grow thin after repeated listens. Thus, though the songs are architecturally solid, they would benefit from a greater diversity of arrangement, production and instrumentation.
TEN: The Errant Night
Featuring an impressive list of Grammy award-winning guest artists – including legendary Irish singer Moya Brennan, nine-time All-Ireland Irish Fiddle Champion, Eileen Ivers, Nashville session musician Jeff Taylor, Nashville singer-songwriter and harmonic layer Buddy Greene, and several others – multi-national Celtic supergroup RUNA celebrates its 10th anniversary with its sixth studio recording; a superb selection of 15 classic and contemporary songs that will get listener’s toes-a-tappin’ and tears-a-flowin’. TEN: The Errant Night, showcases the band’s intense musicianship, its innovative arrangements and production, and its inspiring efforts to preserve and promote ‘trad’ tunes via an amazing array of sounds and styles. Highlights here include the dark John Riley, the gentle Green Fields, the swinging Firewood, the playful Buttermilk, and the lovely traditional lilt of An Buachaillin.
Save His Calm
Those in the know have nothing but massive critical appreciation for Scottish singer-songwriter Mike Vass; his work has been covered by the likes of Brian Finnegan, Kan, Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, Anna Massie and Mairearad Green, and Irish/ American band Comas, among others. Those who don’t know his solo music should get acquainted; lush guitars and hushing vocals are just the start – the real treat on Save His Calm, his fifth full-length studio recording, is the structural arrangements of the songs themselves. Vass has mastered the art of subtlety – the effortless ability to say more with less, understanding that music exists in the spaces between the notes. As such, this short-but-sweet nine-song selection is a masterpiece. Now you are in the know.
One of the perks of being a reviewer is receiving advance copies of new music and books. That sounds better than it is, actually; much of what crosses my desk isn’t worth my time (nor yours.) Recently I received the new release from longstanding Welsh rockers Feeder, and I simply must share. 25 years into their stellar career, the trio from Newport have released their tenth recording, Tallulah, featuring 12 terrific tunes. Ok, this isn’t Celtic music per se, though the band hails from a Celtic nation, and that is enough for me to blow their horn as this album will certainly blow minds. Fans of QOTSA, Foo Fighters, and the Doughboys will love the first single Fear of Flying, a 4-minute salvo of smart-pop-rock.
Whilst Wales might be renowned for its multitude of magnificent men’s choirs and marvellous male vocalists (Tom Jones, Bryn Terfel, etc.), Cardiff-based singer-songwriter Siobhan McCrudden is set to shift perspectives, due in large part to her debut release Icarus Girl. The short-but-sweet 9-song EP is evocative and emotive, moody and melancholic. Both Following You and The Forest showcase earthy, ethereal vocals, while Iron Goddess, Fragile and The Mermaid in Your Glass reveal the broken, beaten, bleeding heart of a romantic poet à la Rimbaud, Beaudelaire and, of course, fellow countryman Dylan Thomas. The title track is a masterpiece of musical simplicity with which McCrudden displays an artistic maturity that belies her age, making her one to keep eyes and ears on in 2019 and beyond.
The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin
As a musician and a lover of music, I listen to almost all genres. And while I lean towards jazz, metal and opera, I have a passion for choral music, perhaps born from fond memories of singing in my high school choir as a teenager. It was a true treat, then, to close my eyes, kick-back and be whisked away to other times and places with Perpetual Twilight, the second full-length release from The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin. Under the artistic direction of Desmond Earley, the multi-member ensemble soars to magical and mystical musical heights with traditional tunes that are by turns beautiful, haunting, lush and gorgeous. Be forewarned fair listener; this stunning 13-track recording is sure to shake and stir the soul.
Frontman and creative tour-de-force with Dublin’s finest ‘trad’ trio The High Kings for over ten years, Martin Furey brings his uillean pipes, whistles, guitars, banjos and bouzoukis to new and exciting places with Ted, his first full-length solo recording. A moving melange of 12 classic tracks (16 Tons, We Shall Overcome, If I Had a Hammer) and contemporary numbers (Revelator, Sigh), the new recording ripples with experimentation; bits of rap, spoken-word poetry, and unique arrangements and orchestration make a strong case for the songsmith’s efforts to break away from his old-school musical past. The real treat here is the album’s first single, Galway Guy, a clever and soulful response to Ed Sheeran’s 2017 hit Galway Girl. Unlike Sheeran, however, Furey isn’t afraid to take risks.
Shift and Change
One of Scotland’s most noted troubadours, Christine Kydd, returns to her roots with Shift and Change, a sweet and sure 11-song selection of traditional tunes, modern melodies and original pieces. Hints of Joni Mitchell shade several numbers, including Just Another Rolling Stone and This is the News, while both Blue Murder and Braes o’ Balquhidder bring Clannad’s Moya Brennan to mind. Folky, with hints of jazz and soul, the album brings a who’s-who of Scottish session players to the mix, including Gillian Frame (fiddle and backing vocals), Andy Shanks (octave mandolin and backing vocals), Fraser Speirs (harmonica), Innes Watson (guitar) and Angus Lyon (piano and Wurlitzer). Lingering lightly atop the instruments, Kydd’s warm and wispy harmonies will likely bring listeners’ hearts home to the highlands.
The Prophet Speaks
The Bard of Belfast is back with his 40th studio recording – his fifth in the past two years – a smooth and silky selection of 14 songs that showcase the songsmith’s true love for rhythm, blues and soul. Strong and subtle melodies weave and wind their way under the skin, leaving listeners with an aural aftertaste that is by turns bitter and sweet. While there is no filler here, tracks like Dimples, Tear Drops, Worried Blues and Spirit Will Provide remind us that, even at the age of 73, the long-revered recluse is a master craftsman who welds words and music together better than anyone on the charts. If consistency is the true hallmark of genius, then Morrison’s tenure at the top is assured.
Celtic Colours Live ~ Volume 6
Like its namesake event, Celtic Colours International Festival – which takes place across Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island each October – this 13-song selection highlights the vibrancy, vitality and variety of contemporary Celtic music. Though rocked, rolled and revved-up for modern audiences, many of the pieces – including Breabach’s stirring rendition of The Last March, The Gamekeeper’s Cottage by Blazin’ Fiddles, and Mary Jane Lamond’s terrific take on An Gàidheal am measg nan Gall – are rooted in the region’s rich and robust tradition of jigs and reels. It is perhaps interesting to note that – like the gorgeous geography of Cape Breton itself – the collection serves as a crossroads of sorts, where old and new worlds collide to create a unique cultural collage.
Although less familiar with Manx music than I should be, I am looking forward to hearing more after enjoying this dazzling debut release from Isle of Man collective Scran. Nane (Manx for One) is an exceptional assortment of ten terrific tracks that is sure to get knees-a-slappin’, toes-a-tappin’ and tears-a-sheddin’. Comprised of some of the most talented young traditional musicians in the smallest of the seven Celtic nations, the group is the offspring of Culture Vannin’s Manx music youth movement, Bree. Skillfully guided by mentor Paul Rogers (Mabon, Strengyn & The Fecktones), the band’s members are only between 13 and 18 years-of-age, yet punch well above their musical weight. Hopefully a harbinger of things to come, the project is certainly trending in the right direction.
As a critic, or reviewer, I learned long ago that I don’t necessarily have to like something to appreciate it. And that is the case here. While not to my taste, I can respect the talent of Scottish singer-songwriter Sineag MacIntyre, and her heartfelt effort to promote and preserve Gaelic music and lyric with these 14 songs. An impressive line-up of players – including Sarah Hoy (fiddle), Mhairi Hall (piano), Gillie MacKenzie (vocals), Kathleen MacInnes (vocals), Seonaidh MacIntyre (whistles, Highland & small pipes), Katie Shaw (step-dance), Iain MacDonald (whistles & concertina), Ewan MacPherson (guitar & mandolin) and Luke Daniels (button box) – bring these traditional pieces to new places, showcasing the simple beauty of ancient melodies, and bringing the music of our ancestors to light.
Arguably Scotland’s finest folk band, the Tannahill Weavers commemorate 50 years of jigs, reels and strathspeys with this spirited and delightful 14-song selection. Showcasing players past and present – including Dougie MacLean, Alison Brown, Duncan Nicholson, Hudson Swan, Ross Kennedy and many more – the group returns to full-form with Òrach, a moving mélange of classic ballads, new compositions, and old Scottish poems set to music. Standout tracks here include Northern Lights, Christchurch Cathedral, Oh No! and the terrific title track. Kudos to the Paisley-based quartet; at an age when most of their contemporaries are repackaging their past, running on fumes, or have simply packed it in, the Weavers celebrate their Golden Anniversary with creativity and cojones. Raise a wee dram to another 50 years!
The Emerald Isle’s female fab-four are back with Ancient Land, a terrific 18-track tribute to their ancestral roots. Like Co. Donegal – the most ancient of Celtic lands – the collection is a blend of dark and light. From the opening moods of the title track to the closing chorus of Ballroom Romance, the quartet sings in shades; soft harmonies hover like a gentle mist over the orchestral landscape of guitar, fiddle, pipes and drums. Along with several re-workings of contemporary songs and a swath of traditional tunes, the current CWs – Mairéad Carlin, Éabha McMahon, Tara McNeill and newest member Megan Walsh – offer-up three impressive original compositions. Fans of Enya, Moya Brennan, and Clannad will want to wrap their ears around this one.
I get a lot of flak from readers for reviewing music that isn’t necessarily considered “Celtic” per se. My usual response is…well, best left unsaid. That said, Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall is fiercely proud of her roots, waving the Saltire wherever she wanders. With her sixth full-length release, the Edinburgh-born troubadour waxes poetic pop-rock through 11 catchy tracks, looking into the heart of love, lust, loss and more. Accompanied only by bare-bones guitar, bass, drums and a smattering of synth and strings, the work is a testament to her masterful song-smithery. And, if you listen closely enough, you can hear her heritage in The River, Dark Side of Me, Backlash & Vinegar, and Tiny Cup. Like Ireland’s irresistible Imelda May, Tunstall is redefining “Celtic” music.
From busking in Dublin’s bustling Temple Bar district to performing on grand festival stages across Europe and North America, talented Irish trio Silotar trip the tunes fantastic with their latest release, Voyage. The 11 songs on the band’s fifth recording highlight the group’s massive musical abilities, with one reviewer even going so far as to call them the Celtic equivalent to Canadian power-trio rockers Rush. While I won’t go that far, I am nonetheless impressed by how much sound can come from a guitar, pipes and percussion. Natural abilities aside, the ensemble wisely scales it back on the new album, allowing songs like Pigtown, Better Man, Tonight’s the Night, and Kilmaly to breathe, and reminding us that music exists in the space between the notes.
The Ennis Sisters
What do you get when you put three musical siblings from Newfoundland together into a recording studio? Good times, for sure. However, you also get strong songwriting, soaring melodies, and the sweetest of harmonies. Masterfully produced by Alan Doyle (Great Big Sea), and featuring a host of talent from both home and away – including Cherish the Ladies – Keeping Time is another beautiful collection of ten terrific tunes from sisters Maureen, Karen and Teresa Ennis. With too many highlights to mention, suffice to say there isn’t one filler track on the album. Already with an array of accolades and awards, this carefully crafted mix of Celtic, country, trad and pop is sure to receive more nods and nominations from both fans and industry insiders.
The Barra MacNeils
On the Bright Side
Three decades into their career, and with close to two dozen live and studio recordings to their credit, Cape Breton’s finest musical family returns with their first album in almost five years. Fans of the sonic siblings won’t be disappointed; with everything from bouncy jigs to beautiful ballads, and a cappella to full-on medleys, the Barras flex their musical muscle with finesse and form. The opening track, Welcome to Boston, is a barn-burner, while the gentle Gaelic lilt of Ribhinn Donn (Brown Haired Girl) will bring you home to the Scottish Highlands. The album’s playful first single, Living the Dream, will satisfy both long-time fans and those just discovering the band, hopefully opening the door for new listeners to their massive and marvelous back catalogue.
Old Man Flanagan’s Ghost
Far From Shore
As a native Montrealer, I abhor anything and everything about Toronto (it’s a hockey thing.) I will make an exception here, however, with Far From Shore, the third full-length release from Old Man Flanagan’s Ghost (OMFG.) Ripe and robust with guitars, fiddles, whistles, bass, bodhran and more, these twelve excellent tracks showcase “stories of drinking, roving, sailing, longing, longing, fear, fun, imagination, nature, courage, cruelty, sadness, and of course, love.” The quintet’s vocalist and frontman Steve Lamb is the real deal, inviting and inspiring listeners to explore their rich musical and lyrical heritage with a voice that is both homespun and heartfelt. Fans of the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners, the Irish Rovers and the Kingston Trio will want to wrap their ears around this one.
Following up on the success of their debut recording, A Day at the Lake, piper Ben Miller and fiddler Anita MacDonald stay true to form with their sophomore effort. With this eight-song selection of instrumental medleys, marches, jigs and waltzes, the talented, dynamic duo dig even deeper into their Celtic roots – aided by the addition of Acadian multi-instrumentalist Zakk Cormier – to capture the soul and spirit of a people and its rich culture. In particular, The High Bass Set, Gur Milis Mòrag, and Bonnie Mary are sure to stir up listeners’ cellular memory, bringing a tap to the foot and a tear to the eye. As such, South Haven will work both at a Saturday night ceilidh and on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Deg | 10
I have been championing Calan for a number of years now; the gifted Welsh quintet has impressed more than this critic, however, with the likes of Sting and fellow countryman Bryn Terfel also singing their praises. And while I am not usually a big fan of compilation recordings, I am making an exception here; the oddly-titled Deg | 10 is an excellent recapping of the band’s first decade, with eighteen songs – including live tracks and remixes – that will engage and entertain both new listeners and long-time fans. In truth, the talented Celtic-music traditionalists/revivalists could easily have released all 6 of their recordings as a ‘Greatest Hits’ box-set, as each of the albums is “all killer, no filler’ – yes, they are that good.
Those wondering what became of Snow Patrol finally have an answer as to why the Northern Ireland pop-rockers waited 7 years between studio recordings. It is an all-to-familiar story; rock star excess leads to addiction, alcoholism, mental and emotional illness, depression, writer’s block, rehab and, ultimately, recovery. Gratefully, the band’s vocalist and lyricist Gary Lightbody doesn’t regale listeners with listless, twelve-step tales of life on and off the edge, instead crafting a ‘post-crisis’ masterpiece of musical magic that will wind and weave its tuneful tapestry around the heart. There is something to be said for the gift of ‘poor man’s therapy’ – the rawness of this recording reminds us that it sometimes takes une saison en enfer before one can truly reach the promised land.
Fans of Tom Waits, Townes Van Zant, Eliot Smith, JJ Cale, Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen will want to wrap their ears around Eamon O’Leary’s stirring debut recording for Reveal Records. By turns tender and touching, the Dublin-born troubadour, who now resides in New York City’s Lower East Side, reveals both light and dark sides of the soul with this haunting, beautiful, booze-infused collection of melodies. Make no mistake; the simplicity of these ten terrific tracks belies a deeper, more masterful craftsmanship – rarely heard in our age of obvious, over-the-top commercial clatter – where life, love, loss and redemption are found in the spaces between the notes. Wise, wily, and ever-so world-weary, the Irish songsmith is sure to become your new best-kept secret.
365: Volume 1
Last year, one of Scotland’s finest musicians – fiddler and composer Aidan O’Rourke – came up with a novel idea; the BBC Folk Award winner, and founding member of renowned trad-bands Lau, Kan, and Blazin’ Fiddles, took a full year off to write daily musical responses to author James Robertson’s short story collection 365: Stories. After 12 months of sketching, O’Rourke emerged from self-imposed exile, chose 22 of those tunes, entered the studio with producer Kit Downes, and recorded a double album. In what is likely to be the first in a series of sonic soundtracks, O’Rourke leads listeners through his muse’s lush literary landscapes with only the instrumental lilt of a Celtic fiddle, a piano, and an accordion bringing the scribe’s words to life.
Love is Dead
Those who know me know that I am a sucker for good, poppy hooks in any musical genre. I had an eargasm with Love is Dead, the third offering from Scottish synth-pop band Chvrches (pronounced Churches). Written and recorded over 14 months, and featuring the genius of Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and Matt Beringer of The National, these 13 songs take the Glasgow-based trio’s surreal style and sound to the next level. Powered by the first single, Get Out, the new work is less ethereal and abstract than previous efforts, while still highlighting the band’s experimental edges. American producer Greg Kurstin makes the magic happen, and vocalist Lauren Mayberry may be the finest frontwoman to come out of ‘ye ould country’ since Annie Lennox.
Nova Scotia’s favourite Celt-Rockers come of age on their fifth full-length release, Limboland. From the opening salvo of Afraid of the World to the closing chords of (bonus track) Blow Winds Blow, the kick-ass quintet shows a commitment to the craft of songwriting. Perhaps inspired by the great storytelling traditions of Atlantic Canada, these 11 tracks ebb and flow like a stormy sea – by turns rocking and rollicking listeners with strong melodies and soaring harmonies. Credit goes to the band for staying true to their sonic roots – Joe Strummer, Social Distortion, Dropkick Murphys – while carving out a solid identity all their own. A guest appearance by Cassie and Maggie MacDonald is a sweet touch, further pushing the Stanfields’ vibe up and away.
The Next Chapter
Despite the forgettable album cover and title, The Next Chapter from Northern Ireland quintet Connla might very well be the best ‘trad’ recording I have heard over the last while. Upon further research, I was pleased to discover that the band – whose members hail from both Armagh and Derry, and met while studying music at the University of Ulster – have picked up an array of awards and accolades since the release of their debut EP in 2015. Deservedly so, I might add. Singer Ciara McCafferty’s lush harmonies lilt effortlessly over gentle uilleann pipes, flutes, whistles, harp, guitar, and more on this strong selection of 11 classic and contemporary compositions – further proof that Celtic culture is alive and well in the six counties.
Inspired by Alexander Moffat’s painting of the same name, this terrific 16-track collection is an homage to some of Scotland’s finest singers and songwriters, past and present, including Jeannie Robertson, Belle Stewart, Willie Scott, Aly Bain, Jimmy MacBeath, and others. The real treats here are Dolina MacLennan’s stirring take on Tha Mi Duillich, Hugh MacDiarmid’s powerful and poignant version of The Watergaw, and Flora MacNeil’s stunning rendition of A Mhic Iain Ic Sheumais. More than a mere selection of strong songs, however, the anthology does well to capture the spirit and sound of a country, while doing its bit to preserve and promote traditional Celtic culture. A great project by the good folks at Greentrax Recordings that will be enjoyed by listeners of all ages.
It has been a banner year for the Belfast bard; in 2017, the 72-year-old released Roll With the Punches, rocketing to the top of the charts. His 38th studio recording, Versatile, is sure to do the same, as the ageless crooner scoots and scats his way through 16 terrific and timeless tracks of smooth standards and old-school soul. Backed by a super show-tune band, Van the Man hits all the high notes on Broken Record, Take it Easy Baby, and I Get a Kick Out of You. Fresh takes on Bye Bye Blackbird, Makin’ Whoopee, and Unchained Melody get straight to the heart of the music, reminding listeners just how…well…versatile Morrison is as both an arranger and performer. Here’s hoping he keeps hopping and bopping.
Songs of Experience
The much delayed follow-up to 2014’s Songs of Innocence, U2’s 14th studio album comes of age with all the aches and pains of middle age. While the Irish supergroup retains its signature sound, aided by the stellar sonic workings of no less than nine producers, the band soars off into new thematic directions; at their lyrical core, Love is All We Have Left, Lights of Home, The Little Things That Give You Away, and 13 (There is a Light), bring mortality into focus, as if front-man Bono – perhaps inspired by recent, undisclosed health issues – can see the end. Thankfully, the smart-pop sensibilities of American Soul, Red Flag Day, and the first single, You’re the Best Things About Me, keep the heaviness in check.
Celtic Colours Volume 5
The world’s biggest and best Celtic music gathering takes place each October in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. For those who have yet to take in the sights and sounds of the Celtic Colours International Festival, not to worry; organizers compile stand-out tracks from the previous year’s event into musical mementos that will surely inspire you to attend down the road. Volume 5 in the annual series is simply exceptional, with outstanding sound production, and powerful performances from the likes of Còig, Dwayne Côté, Ímar, Sarah MacInnis, Talisk, Daoirí Farrell, Allan MacDonald and more. While the individual pieces succeed at showcasing the sonic diversity of Celtic music, it is the thread of common cultural customs that weave this work into another warm and welcoming musical mosaic.
Those with a penchant for purity will take pride and pleasure in this debut offering from Ottawa-based duo Hibernia. Both vocalist Ellen MacIsaac and harpist Susan Toman have rich and robust roots in all things Celtic, and the 14 traditional tunes of Wide Waters capture and convey the spirit of the living, breathing cultures of Ireland and Scotland with fine and tender melodies drifting gently over the subtle plucks of single notes. More than a collection of songs, however, the recording serves as a soundtrack, or a dreamscape, for either a soft summer’s day or a cold, shimmering winter’s eve. At the forefront of the pair’s musical philosophy is the drive and desire to preserve and promote Celtic customs. As such, very well done ladies!
The High Kings
Despite the recent parting of founding member Martin Furey, the Dublin-born band has much to celebrate with this commemorative collection of greatest hits. First and foremost, perhaps, is the sheer volume of fantastic material recorded over the past ten years, including The Rocky Road to Dublin, The Rising of the Moon, Red is the Rose, and the group’s terrific, tear-jerking take on The Parting Glass. The anthology also succeeds at showcasing the quartet’s tremendous talent for both classic and contemporary ‘trad’, and fêtes the foursome’s refreshing efforts to bring the magic and mystique of Eire’s music to new and younger generations of listeners. Even with Furey’s departure, there is surely more than enough gas left in the band’s tank for another decade of sonic success.
Out of All This Blue
It’s hit-and-miss again for Mike Scott and his merry band of musicians with Out of All This Blue, a prolific, yet inconsistent, outpouring of 34 tracks that will have you nodding your head at one turn, and scratching it the next. While some songs certainly hit the heart – perhaps inspired by the perks and perils of Scott’s recent marriage – most miss the mark, particularly when the Scot-turned-Dubliner tries too hard to remain relevant in today’s fractured musical marketplace. The result is a mixed bag of mid-life crisis musings – often experimental in sound and structure – that would perhaps have been better served up as a smaller sonic portion. Still, like Dylan, there is no denying an old artistic soul his poetic meanderings.
In the Name of Stillness
Fans of Enya and Loreena McKennitt will want to wrap their ears around harpist Áine Minogue’s latest effort In the Name of Stillness. The native of Co. Tipperary, who now resides in New England, weaves a warm tapestry of hushed – and sometimes haunting – harmonies on this terrific ten-track release. As the moniker implies, the collection – sub-titled Celtic Meditation Music – is plush with gentle and gorgeous melodies, idyllic for a summer’s day by the lake, an autumn stroll through the colourful foliage, or with a glass of wine by the fireplace during winter months. As prolific as she is profound, Minogue already has dozens of recording credits to her name, including 13 solo albums, and continues to mature as a musical artisan.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts on one of my favourite recordings of 2017, The Screaming Orphans’ first full-length release Tap Room. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the song structure, or maybe it is the musicality of the melodies, or it might just be the fun and frolic of four talented sisters from Co. Donegal connecting in a creative milieu – whatever it is, it works well. Like their sonic forbearers Clannad, traditional tones and textures are given a make-over on a number of tunes, including Follow Me Up to Carlow, Raithneach A Bhean Bheag, and The Ballad of Spring Hill. The result is testament to the ages-old adage ‘the family that plays together, stays together.’ Here’s hoping they do.
The Nesbitt Family
Devils Bit Sessions
Recorded live off the floor during a weekend seisun at the Nesbitt family’s home at the foot of Devil’s Bit Mountain in Co. Tipperary, and featuring three generations of family members and a few very special guests, Devils Bit Sessions is a raw, rollicking romp through traditional Celtic music and culture. A sonic trip through time, the 19 tracks do well to capture and convey the trials and triumphs of rural Irish life. Toes will tap and hands will clap, as Grammy Award winning violinist – and longtime member of Emerald Isle supergroup Celtic Woman – Máiréad Nesbitt leads her siblings through a series of jovial jigs, rustic reels and beautiful ballads. Those with a passion for authentic ‘trad’ won’t want to miss this one.
Fittingly, Whiskey Picnic opens with a 26-second invitation to join the Rogue Diplomats for an old-school piss up. The quirky quintet from New York and Pennsylvania – made up of emerging and established musicians and showbiz professionals – takes no prisoners and makes no excuses on their terrific 11 track debut recording, rambling through classics like Galway Hooker, Mary Mac, Old Brown Ale, and Wild Rover like there is no tomorrow. Armed with guitars, accordions, tin whistles, bouzoukis and bodhráns, the young band rips and roars with an energy and enthusiasm that is only surpassed by their vibrant vocal harmonies. Fun, festive and full of frolic, the ‘Dips are sure bets to make every day seem like St. Paddy’s Day at your local Irish pub.
Rattle The Knee
Paving & Crigging
More great ‘trad’ here, this time from Los Angeles-based trio Rattle The Knee. Patrick D’Arcy leads his latest group through their debut recording, Paving & Crigging, featuring himself on uilleann pipes, fiddler Kira Ott and guitarist Jimmy Murphy, romping through 14 traditional Celtic tunes, including Paddy’s Rambles Through the Park, Green Fields of Canada, An Buachaill Caol Dubh, and Lady on the Island. Interestingly, the entire album was recorded in the lower register of B natural, once the standard key for traditional Irish jigs, reels and ballads. Though the resulting drone makes for a meditative, zen-like listening experience, there is enough variety and voice here to keep it festive and fresh. An excellent first effort by a talented trio to keep a close eye on.
True to its title, Gaelic Stories features 14 traditional tales told by celebrated Scottish seanchaí Peter Morrison, a crofter and fisherman who lived on the small Hebridean island of Grimsay, near North Uist and Benbecula, off the country’s west coast. Originally recorded between 1962 and 1974, and first released in 1995 as an audio cassette only, the album has been re-mastered and reformatted for contemporary audiences. Even those who don’t understand a word of Scots Gaelic will enjoy Morrison’s lively lilt and brash brogue as he recounts local legend and lore. More importantly, perhaps, is that the soundtrack serves to preserve and promote a disappearing way of life. Credit both Greentrax Recordings and the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University for making the investment.
Cape Breton Celtic ubergroup Còig realize their sonic potential with their third full-length release Rove, a twelve track treasure trove that will wash over you like the sea upon Nova Scotia shores. Featuring the fiery fiddling duo of Chrissy Crowley and Rachel Davis, the playful piano of Jason Roach, and the musical musings of multi-instrumentalist Darren McMullen, Rove takes listeners back to simpler, gentler times, when Saturday night ceilidhs brought communities together to sing, dance, drink and celebrate their rustic roots. Jigs, reels, ballads – and a brilliant cover of Peter Gabriel’s Solisbury Hill – showcase both the quartet’s strong chemistry, and the region’s rich musical history. Còig are the real deal, folks, and they just might inspire you to set sail for Atlantic Canada.
Who knew that traditional Welsh folk-rock could sound so damned…sexy? I am tempted to leave the review at that, and leave the rest to readers’ imaginations. Now that I have your attention, however…Fronted by vocalist Bethan Rhiannon, who sings in both English and her native language, and featuring an all-star lineup of players, Calan absolutely kill it with their fourth studio recording, Solomon. Stellar sound production, and a few special guest appearances – including noted Welsh poet Nigel Jenkins – take these twelve terrific tunes to new heights, and make for a stirring and stunning sonic journey through Wales’ rugged and robust musical landscape. It is no wonder that critics and fans (me, on both counts) are quick with kudos for this quintessential Celtic quintet.
The Joshua Tree (Box Set)
Has it really been thirty years since Bono, The Edge, Larry and Adam broke into the big leagues with one of the greatest rock records ever made? Although this 7 LP anthology might seem a bit excessive with its abundance of live versions, studio outtakes, b-sides and rarities – not to mention a grab-bag of other goodies – it does well to capture a band at the absolute peak of its musical prowess. Nostalgia aside, and with the quartet now touring in support of the original album, it is a reminder that The Joshua Tree did more than cement U2’s status as a stadium act; it put Irish music back in the global spotlight, paving the way for countless artists to emerge from the Emerald Isle.
Hailing from the sea swept shores of Cape Breton, Glace Bay fiddler Matt Earhart goes old-school with this eleven song selection of classic Celtic melodies. From the opening notes of ‘Morrison’s Jig’ to the closing chorus of ‘The Parting Glass’, the up-and-coming Caper shines a spotlight on his Scottish/Irish roots with some fine finger-work on the frets, and equally vibrant vocals. Highlights here include a laid-back take on The Waterboys’ ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, the homegrown homage of ‘Farewell to Nova Scotia’, and a rousing rendition of ‘The Star of the County Down.’ By turns mellow and muscular, and seasoned with sprinklings of traditional jaunts, jigs and reels, this self-titled release is ideal for both Saturday night stargazing and/or lazy Sunday afternoons under the summer sun.
11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory
The boys from Beantown are back with a bang. 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory finds the fearless sextet in fine form on their 9th studio recording, as they rip-roar through almost a dozen incendiary tracks. From the lonesome opening notes of The Boatman, through the rollicking First Class Loser and the rocking guitars of I Had A Hat, to the closing chorus of Until Next Time, the crafty Celt-Punk-Rock veterans sound as vital and vibrant as they did in their Quincy, Massachusetts garage over two decades ago. This is anthemic, ass-whoopin’ music that works best at the highest possible volume – perfect for a late night piss-up with family, friends and foes at the local watering hole, waiting on a sure-fire, old-school donnybrook.
Cassie & Maggie MacDonald
The Willow Collection
Nova Scotia siblings Cassie and Maggie MacDonald hit all the right notes with The Willow Collection, an eclectic eleven song collection of classic and contemporary jigs, reels, standards and surprises. As gifted musically as they are gorgeous, the sisters strike sonic gold with Hangman, Strip the Willow Set, and Nobleman’s Wedding. The Willow Lullaby, Down in the Willow Garden and Turn Me Gentle When I’m Dying are gentler touches, drawing upon both the pair’s rural Canadian roots and their passion for fine and folksy American hooks. Many years of writing, practicing, recording and performing together have forged the dynamic duo into one of the finest Celtic music acts on this side of the Atlantic. Be sure to catch them in concert over the coming months.
Alana & Leigh Cline
Alana & Leigh Cline
Keeping with the family theme, father-daughter duo Leigh and Alana Cline team up for their first full-length, self-titled recording, and the results are sure and sonically satisfying. A melodic mélange of old-style jigs and reels, mixed with a sprinkling of softer ballads, make these ten terrific tracks ideal for all occasions; from laid-back, easy listening to an all-out Cape Breton kitchen party. Standout songs here include The Black Mill, Huntington Castle Set, Pigeon on the Gate, Drowsy Maggie Variations, and Mason’s Apron, each featuring Alana’s fine fiddling and Leigh’s limber guitar work. It is easy to understand why the Toronto-based twosome is in such high demand on the summer festival circuit; it is virtually impossible not to grin from ear-to-ear while listening to these songs
Celtic Colours Vol. 4
Every year, the fine folks at Celtic Colours International Festival send me their latest volume of live recordings from the previous year’s gathering, and each time I am reminded why it is the best annual Celtic music event in the world. Showcasing the likes of Liz Carroll, Dougie MacLean, Liz Doherty, Andrea Beaton, The Once, and many more, this thirteen-tune time capsule succeeds at capturing and conveying the soul and spirit of both the artists and their diverse musical offerings. In particular, the album’s opening track from Le Vent du Nord pays homage to the area’s indigenous roots. And the appearance of several Acadian performers well-represents the region’s Francophone influence. If you have yet to attend CCIF, then let this be your call to action.
How this recording managed to slip through my fingers last year remains a mystery; everyone knows I am a sucker for a pretty face with a prettier voice. More than a Welsh version of Enya, Kate Bush or Bjork, singer-songwriter Lisa Jen pushes her six-piece band to the brink of Celtic alt-folk with stirring, soulful vocals. Anian – the Brythonic word for nature – does well to express the spirit and soul of a hearty people, their lush landscape and their ancient language, in hushed and haunting tones. Beautiful and breathtaking, these 11 superb soundscapes caught the ear of Peter Gabriel and his Real World Records, a feather in the cap for any artist, let alone a little-known group with big things on the horizon.
Voices of Angels
Give credit where credit is due; the lovely lasses of Celtic Woman play to their strengths, and listener’s heartstrings, with this 16 song selection of classic and contemporary melodies. As always, each member of the all-girl group is afforded the opportunity to showcase their individual talents. However, the quartet is at its best when three and four part harmonies take hold – the whole being stronger than the sum of its parts. Highlights here include Mo Ghile Mear, Dulaman, and Teir Abhaile Riu, where the troupe taps into their traditional Irish roots with passion and precision. And kudos are due to the production team for allowing these Voices of Angels to soar over the roar of pipes, percussion, fiddles, whistles, harps, horns, guitars, and more.
Rant Maggie Rant
Over a year in the making, the third full-length release from this Ontario-based sextet was well worth the wait. Riddled with fiddles, recorder, accordion, bouzouki and a host of other traditional Celtic instruments, Latitude highlights the exceptional vocals of Lindsay Schindler. Aided and abetted by a great gust of guests, including renowned Canadian singers Emm Gryner and Dayna Manning, Rant Maggie Rant is making a case for themselves as one of the finest Celtic Canuck bands in the country. And, with these twelve tunes, the band successfully captures the energy of its well-reputed live show in a studio environment. Among many, standout songs include Paper Boats, Lemur’s Femur, On the Wings of a Skorie, and a stirring ode to Canada’s First Nations people, Mi’kmaq Enigma.
The Seven Suns
Belfast-born uilleann piper John McSherry revitalizes the instrument, and – to some degree – the soundtrack of Ireland’s rich heritage, with this terrific ten track offering. An established composer and arranger, whose previous release Soma was hailed by critics and music fans alike, McSherry calls upon the talents of friends Sean Óg Graham, Mike McGoldrick and Niamh Dunne to examine and express the Emerald Isle’s current home in the global musical canon. Both traditional and cutting-edge at once, the compilation captures and conveys a country at a musical crossroads, where past and present collide, perhaps forging a soundtrack for the future. Whatever the case, there is no denying McSherry’s great gift for song, giving listeners much to look forward to in the years to come.
Canadian trad-trio Nua build upon the success of their 2014 debut Bold with a solid and satisfying sophomore effort; Flow is flush with both fast flowing melodies and songs as lush as the Irish landscape. It’s amazing how far three instruments – guitar, fiddle and bodhrán – can take traditional tunes when this kind of award-winning talent is in abundance. From the opening notes of Wide Open to the closing run of YK Inn, these 12 terrific tracks will have listeners tapping their toes and, for ex-pats, wiping a tear from the eye. Highlights here include The Jacobite, Wasabi, and the pseudo-country styling of Manic Breakfast. A lock for major North American festivals, be sure to catch the band on tour in the coming months.
Walking on Cars
Everything This Way
With all the hype surrounding Walking on Cars, you’d be forgiven thinking that the Irish quintet is the second coming of U2. And while comparisons to the Dublin megastars are inevitable – anthemic melodies, uplifting choruses, poignant ballads – Walking on Cars carve out a strong sense of self with their debut recording. Vocals soar on the opener Catch Me if You Can, while guitars paint pretty on At Gunpoint and Ship Goes Down. Bass and drums drive Don’t Mind Me and Hand in Hand, but it is Sorcha Durham’s powerful piano that carries the day here, particularly on the first single Speeding Cars. Interestingly, despite their catchy pop-rock leanings, the band’s Dingle roots shine through all twelve tracks with a wee touch of trad.
Daou Don Dañs
As evidenced by both the popularity of the Festival Interceltique de Lorient and the resurgence of the Brythonic dialect, Bretagne is the Celtic hot-spot these days. That élan is ever-present on the latest effort from bombardist Steven Bodénès and piper Sylvain Hamon. With a little help from their friends (vocals, guitar, bass), the dynamic duo weave and wind their way through eleven tracks of traditional tunes from the east coast of France. Those with an ear for time-honoured jigs and reels from Scotland and the Emerald Isle will find something familiar here, as the main melody lines make it easy to connect the Celtic dots. Daou Don Dañs will remind us that, despite the geographical distance, our cultural esprit ties us together as a people.
Almost amazingly, this Celtic supergroup’s music is greater than the sum of its superstar parts. Comprised of five brilliant and established musicians, there is surprisingly little ego here as the three Irish and two Americans put it all aside to seamlessly blend haunting Celtic melodies with jazz, contemporary classical, experimental and atmospheric music to create a unique sonic hybrid. Despite the myriad of styles and sounds – or perhaps because of it – the quintet still draws a straight line through each of the eleven songs, giving listeners plenty of signposts to keep ears wide open and attention attuned. Drawing comparisons to the Waterboys, Avro Pärt and Sigur Ros, it will be quite an experience to hear how the band can stretch these tunes out in concert.
Like their male counterparts in Celtic Thunder, the ladies of Celtic Woman have become a slick and sleek hit-producing machine over the last decade. It would be too easy to criticize the quartet for being a case of style over substance. However, repeated listening of their latest recording, Destiny, is a reminder that traditional Irish music, in any form, shines with both spirit and soul. There is no denying the great vocal talent here and, thankfully, the girls never take these 15 tracks over the top, allowing both harmonies and melodies to breathe on their own, sifting their way into listener’s hearts. Arrangements and instrumentation are above average, as always, and special kudos for the cover of the Waterboys’ classic The Whole of the Moon.
Irish singer and shanachie Helena Byrne sifts through the past, both Eire’s and her own, to produce 17 terrific tracks of old-school storytelling. Tales of traditional myths from the Emerald Isle blend seamlessly with quaint yarns from her childhood home, bringing to life the people and place of a different, and perhaps better, time. Ideal for relaxing around the fireplace with family and friends, listeners of all ages – particularly young children – will enjoy classic takes on The Fairies, The Dullahan, The Hunchback of Tipperary and more. The lone musical track – My Lagan Love – showcases Byrne’s lovely lilt, and leaves one wondering why there aren’t more songs in this selection. Hopefully, it is a teaser track of things to come for this talented tale-teller.
According to Wikipedia, the melodeon is “a diatonic button accordion and a member of the free-reed aerophone family of musical instruments. It is a type of button accordion on which the melody-side keyboard contains one or more rows of buttons, with each row producing the notes of a single diatonic scale. The buttons on the bass-side keyboard are most commonly arranged in pairs, with one button of a pair sounding the fundamental of a chord and the other the corresponding major triad (or, sometimes, a minor triad).” That said, no-one plays the instrument better than Irish-American Dan Possumato, and his latest recording, Mostly Melodeon, is a fun, frolicking 16-song romp through his roots that wouldn’t sound out of place at a Cape Breton kitchen party.
Fox n Firkin
Australian Celt-Punks Fox n Firkin come out swinging on their debut recording No Vacancy. The opening salvo of Drink the Lot sets the torrid tone early, and doesn’t let up over the next nine tracks, with driving guitars, pounding drums and take-no-prisoners vocals. The title track is a detour into dub/ska, while the closing number pays homage to The Clash circa 1977. The band’s Irish roots shine through with mandolin on Days Long Gone and Too Hip. Other standout tracks here include the brilliant El Condor Pasa and the crunchy Bastard Brigade. What’s clear by album’s end is that the group has earned its stripes playing every backroom bar and pub down under, and stands as tall as Boston’s Dropkick Murphys or Kingston’s The Mahones.
Dark Sky Island
Ireland’s prolific prodigal daughter Enya Brennan returns with her tenth full-length studio recording Dark Sky Island, an 11-track mélange of moody, ethereal Celt-Pop. While the selection of sonic soundscapes is clearly a case of “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”, the Donegal native’s winning formula, much like herself, seems timeless. The album is bookended by The Humming and Diamonds on the Water, each epic, haunting and other-worldly. In between, gentle piano and strings sit like fields of green, over which Enya’s supple vocals hover like gentle Irish mist. In particular, So I Could Find My Way, I Could Never Say Goodbye and the title track will touch and tug at the heartstrings of ex-pats around the world. Hey – if it ain’t broke…
One of Scotland’s best and bestselling bands, Runrig has at long last called it a day with its fourteenth and final studio recording, The Story. A shame, as the group – which has seen almost a dozen members come and go over its four+ decades – has never sounded better than on these eleven songs. Often tender – the lead-off, title-track is particularly moving, as is the stunning Rise and Fall – the sextet isn’t afraid to toughen things up with The Years We Shared. Other standouts include Every Beating Heart and When the Beauty, which features the great guitar work of Nova Scotian Bruce Guthro. The stirring Somewhere closes the album, and the band’s stay atop the charts, with charm and grace. Bravo gentlemen!
Areas of High Traffic
Every once in a while a recording will come along that weaves and winds its way into the subconscious, softly sitting there for weeks as the mind sifts through sounds. Such is the case with Areas of High Traffic, the second solo release from singer-songwriter Damien O’Kane. The native of Coleraine, Northern Ireland hits the nail on the head like a blacksmith with these 11 songs, each remarkably crafted with simple guitar and voice. Though only 38 years of age, O’Kane finds himself both standing on the shoulders of, and keeping company with, giants of the genre like Van Morrison, Paul Brady, Luka Bloom and Damien Rice. Yes, he is that good, and this recording is an early frontrunner for Celtic album of the year.
25 Years of Irish Punk
Frontman Finny McConnell is quick to classify The Mahones as Irish Punk and not Celtic Punk. The difference is duly-noted, especially with this epic, quarter-century spanning best-of retrospective which draws heavily upon his distinct Dublin roots. It’s easy to forget what a musical powerhouse the Kingston, Ontario-based band has been since forming on St. Patrick’s Day in 1991. Re-recorded classics, including A Great Night On The Lash, Paint The Town Red, Past The Pint Of No Return and Drunken Lazy Bastard will remind listeners of the sound and fury that hallmarks both the group’s studio recordings and their fierce live shows. Hardcore fans can choose from a variety of anniversary packages also, which include bonus tracks, concert tickets, rare recordings, tee-shirts and Katie Kaboom artwork!
Celtic Colours Live
By all accounts, 2015’s Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton was a massive success, with more artists and attendees than ever before. Though a challenge to condense the size and scope of the nine-day experience, event organizers bring the sonic gathering to scale with Celtic Colours Live; Volume 3. The terrific 14-track CD is a testament to the talent and range of the performers. In particular, standout numbers from The String Sisters, Annbjorg Lien, Aiden O’Donnell and Liz Doherty emphasize the festival’s strong multinational flavor, while homegrown artists Kenneth MacKenzie, J.P. Cormier and The Barra MacNeils highlight the region’s Celtic roots. Hopefully, this superb recording will entice listeners to make the trip to this year’s CCIF, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this coming October.
The EP: Gaelic-Dance Piping From Cape Breton Island
It’s no secret Cape Breton is the heart of Celtic North America. When the first Scottish settlers arrived to the region more than 200 years ago, they brought with them the musical traditions of their homeland. Those customs continue to thrive today, due in large part to the efforts of Nova Scotia’s Gaelic College. The cultural institution is responsible for Nuallan – pipers Keith MacDonald, Kevin Dugas and Kenneth MacKenzie. Their Kickstarter-funded, debut 6-song recording does well to capture, convey and carry-on the area’s melodic history and heritage, tracing its rustic roots back hundreds of years to ‘ye’ ould country’. Accompanied by some of the province’s finest musicians, the young trio succeeds at showcasing the spirit and soul of a people, their landscape and their lineage.
The Glengarry Fiddlers
The Glengarry Fiddlers
Over 1,000 kilometers to the west of Cape Breton Island is Canada’s other Celtic heartland of eastern Ontario. There, the Glengarry Highland Games in Maxville draws tens of thousands of Celts to the region each year. Maxville is also home to The Glengarry Fiddlers, a 50 member+ ensemble led by legendary teacher Ian R. MacLeod. Their self-titled debut CD is sonic joy; from the opening notes of A Hundred Thousand Welcomes to the closing chorus of We’re a Hundred Pipers, the group weaves a warm and wonderful melodic Celtic knot with 15 traditional jigs, reels and strathspeys. MacLeod and his students offer up more than an exercise in musical academia, however; this rootsy recording shines a light on the country’s Celtic past, present and future.
Across the waters, Bretagne continues to enjoy and celebrate a Celtic cultural revival through music and dance. Both disciplines are detailed with Peverlamm’s latest musical effort Deltu. Led by multi-instrumentalist Konogan an Habask, the sonic sextet rips and roars its way through 14 classic and contemporary tunes with uilleann pipes, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, whistles, bouzouki, and more. Vocalist Elsa Corre brings traditional tales to life with passion and precision, drawing inspiration from the likes of Sinead O’Conner, Mary Jane Lamond, Bjork, and Lhasa de Sela. Though perhaps overly experimental at times – the tracks Hunvre and Ton Sioul in particular – this recording nonetheless gives listeners the chance to savour the flavour of a great Celtic nation whose cultural impact and importance, too often, gets overlooked.
Off The Floor
It’s back to basics for one of Nova Scotia’s finest fiddlers, and Creignish’s Wendy MacIsaac has never sounded better. Dear Christy sets the tone from the start; a rousing round of reels sure to get hands clappin’, feet tappin’ and thighs slappin’. Accompanied by guitar and piano, the pace picks up with Biddy From Sligo, before settling into the soulful and stirring Magificent 7. The upbeat medleys of Uist Lasses and Holy Strathspeys Pat give way to the last four tracks, all jigs and reels, and all recorded – literally – live off the floor. While the split studio/live format makes for uneven production, the raw energy and pure joy of the performances more than make up for it. Cape Breton at its very best.
Drunk, Sick and Blue
This rockin’ five-piece, Celt-Punk band from Scandinavia lists its influences as the Pogues, the Dubliners, the Ramones, Nirvana, Motörhead, Dropkick Murphys, Pissed Jeans, and Flogging Molly. And – sure enough – that is exactly what their latest effort Drunk, Sick and Blue sounds like. And which, by the way, is why this recording kicks Celtic ass from the opening notes of the title track to the closing chorus of Drunken Christmas (check out the video!) Highlights here are many, but both Galway Races and The Molly Maguires stand tall for their sheer raw punk power. A towering and terrific tour-de-force, Finnegan’s Hell will likely be blowing concert halls and clubs down over the coming year – be sure not to miss them when on tour.
Sadly, this stunning five-tune EP will likely be the swan-song for the ‘little hard-rock band that could’ from the blue-collar, mining town of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. The supersonic sextet, who have been around since 2003, have decided to call it quits after their current tour wraps in early 2015. And that’s a shame, really, as the group has never sounded tighter or more together than it does with this crowd-funded recording. Grinding guitars, booming bottom-end bass, and drop-dead driving drums are mixed and mastered with finesse on each track, laying a rock-solid foundation for the melodic, screamo-pop co-vocals of Gavin Butler and Sean Smith. Call it nu-metal, call is post-metal, The Blackout can now take their rightful place alongside Lostprophets on the Welsh rock mantel.
Songs of Innocence
Those waiting on the U2 of old will have to be patient; the Irish super-group’s evolution has shifted their perspective from telescopic to microscopic in this deeply personal, 11-track effort. Even the grandiose gesture of releasing the recording free to iTunes users last month is overshadowed here by the sonic subtleties of Every Breaking Wave, Sleep Like a Baby Tonight and Song For Someone. Sure, the trademark echo guitar and soaring vocals are there on Iris, Raised By Wolves and Cedarwood Road – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? – but the band’s decision to explore their past instead of re-inventing it was a wise one artistically. Risky, perhaps, but U2 fans are among the most brand loyal in the world and will follow.
The Hunger and the Fight (Part One)
The first component of a conceptual double-album, The Hunger and the Fight (Part One) is an ambitious musical undertaking from Canadian rockers The Mahones that chronicles both the pre-emigration struggles of the Irish people and the evolution of their culture on the Emerald Isle. The fiery four-piece band from Kingston, Ontario punches well above its weight here, producing one of the best albums of the year of any genre with a stirring selection of songs that go way beyond the group’s raucous, three-chord roots. Imagine Celt-Punk meets The Who’s Quadrophenia; complex, compelling, and content-cohesive in its centre-line that runs like a roaring river through a plush Celtic landscape. Truly, this is a masterpiece that captures the band at the very pinnacle of its creative prowess.
The Best of the Pipes of Christmas
Recorded in concert over a decade at various venues across New York City and New Jersey, this 15-song selection is sure to stir the soul this holiday season with a treasure trove of traditional Yuletide tunes and Celtic classics. From the opening solo drones of The Highland Cathedral to the fading pomp of The MacMhuirich’s March, the magic, splendour and pageantry of Christmas comes alive with a musical mélange of vocals, harp, fiddle, flute, cello, organ, accordion, guitar, and brass. But it is the pipes and drums – brash and bold – that drive the likes of Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, Amazing Grace and Scotland the Brave to new heights. Be sure to stuff this into someone’s stocking this year.
Ohio is the undisputed home of rock ‘n’ roll in North America – the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum are in Cleveland for a reason – and that influence and inspiration can be heard and felt on Homeland’s latest recording, The Show. Hailing from nearby Springfield, the Celt-Rock quintet sounds tight and terrific on Modern Man, Mud, Ghost Ship and the title track. Fiddles reel and rollick over guitars, bass, drums and mandolin on Cloud Cover and Pressed for Time, and a guest appearance by legendary piper Kevin Palm on The Climb and Leaving of Liverpool brings the band to great highland grounds. The gentle lament and gorgeous vocal harmonies of Closing Song are a fine and fitting finale to this excellent, engaging effort.
Byrne and Kelly
There is a reason why this album went to #1 on Billboard’s World Music charts; Neil Byrne and Ryan Kelly of Celtic Thunder make the case that they are more than just pretty faces with this cozy and quaint collection of 11 classic Irish tracks that highlight the pair’s musical and vocal prowess. Guitars, mandolin, piano and percussion bring Saints and Sinners, Captured and On Ragland Road to new places, while covers of Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl and Hothouse Flowers’ Don’t Go sound both fresh and familiar at once. The real treats here are the ballads; Beautiful Affair, No Man’s Land, The Fields of Althenry and The Water Is Wide will all bring a tear to the eye and a tug to the heartstrings.
A Thousand Curses Upon Love
From Swansboro, North Carolina, super-soprano and mega multi-instrumentalist Jennifer Licko could very well be the heir-apparent to Canada’s Loreena McKennitt and Clannad’s Maire Brennan; soaring vocals dominate her sixth full-length release, A Thousand Curses Upon Love. Plush harmonies drive the disc’s opening track, Turning Away, while The Moon Going Home, Fickle Breezes and The Sea are subtler, allowing the melodies more room to breathe. The Song of the Singing Horseman and Hard Times Come Again No More are good standard fare, and succeed at showcasing the singer’s American roots. The lovely Licko is at her very best, however, when she lets loose with the more traditional Mile Marbhphaisg Air A’ Ghaol and the rolling Siuthadaibh Bhalachaibh. Bonus points for the all too cool album title.
Little known to most, Quebec City is a cornucopia of Celtic culture, with many Irish settling across the St. Lawrence Seaway in the latter half of the 19th century. The ensuing hybrid created a lasting and fascinating musical mélange that continues to evolve. Not quite Quebecois, nor Irish, nor even Acadian, area sextet Bonhomme Setter has brought the best of each to Obia, a stirring and somber set of 10 terrific original and traditional tunes that speak to the region’s distinct and diverse past. Guitars, bass, pipes, whistles, fiddle, cello, percussion and voice all shine on Man of the House, The Blacksmith and Gloomy Sky, while Back Home in Derry combines the melodies of Gordon Lightfoot and Christy Moore with the poetry of Bobby Sands.
Nova Scotia has long been a hot-bed of Celtic fiddling, with new generations of four-stringers standing atop the shoulders of their predecessors. Twenty-something Gillian Head takes a place in those ranks with her 11-track debut recording, Spirit. From the opening salvo of Sputnikskerry to the closing chorus of Willie’s Mom in Donegal, listeners are taken on a timeless trip through Cape Breton’s rich musical heritage, and by turn, those of Scotland and Ireland. A solid and spunky selection of jigs, reels and ballads showcase her finesse on the frets – lively and loose atop a tight quartet of guitar, piano, drums and whistle. Ideal for Friday nights in the family parlour or kitchen, Spirit is sure to keep your hands clapping and your toes tapping.
There may be very little that is ‘Celtic’ about this recording, but that hasn’t stopped Paisley’s Paolo Nutini from releasing what many critics are calling the best album to ever come out of Scotland. From the opening grooves of Scream to the cutesy closing chorus of Someone Like You, the 27-year-old Scotalian singer/songwriter takes lucky listeners on a hip and happening trip from 60s-era Motown, R’n’B, gospel and soul through to cutting-edge breaks and beats. Deep bass and drums, rhythmic guitars, cool keyboards, and a shiny horn section lay down a rock-solid foundation over which Nutini soars with smooth and sexy vocals. With an abundance of style and substance, and talent to spare, Justin, Jay-Z and Kanye ain’t got a thing on this blue-eyed soulster.
Celtic Colours Live 2013
At the other end of the musical spectrum, but no less impressive, is a stirring selection of live performances from last fall’s Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton. Recorded over seven days and nights, and featuring an array of local, national and international artists, including the likes of Nathan Rogers, Kimberly Fraser and Troy MacGillivray, these fifteen foot-stompin’, tear-jerkin’ tracks succeed at showcasing a variety of tunes and talent that is both as diverse as the area’s autumn foliage, and as warm and welcoming as the region’s residents. As with most live recordings, the energy brings out the best in these contemporary takes on classic cuts. For those who were there, amazing memories – and for those who were not, an invitation to attend.
What happens when you get a bunch of old-school Celt-Rockers together for one more kick at the can? You get Last Call, thirteen songs that sum up Black 47’s career with sonic suave and swagger. Standouts here include the rollicking Dublin Days, the rowdy St. Patrick’s Day, the ska-infused Johnny Comes a Courtin’, and the lovely Lament for John Kuhlman. While Larry Kirwin’s “lil’ band that could” never received the proper acclaim that they so rightly deserved as one of the genre’s founding fathers, bands like The Dropkick Murphys, The Mahones, Great Big Sea and others wouldn’t enjoy the kinds of audiences they do without Black 47. Last Call is a fun, festive and fitting way for this seminal sextet to bid a fond farewell.
For Freedom Alone
With the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn upon us, the good folks at Greentrax Recordings in Edinburgh sought fit to supply an official event soundtrack. Normally I don’t go in for these kinds of cash-grab compilations, but this one tugged at my heartstrings from the first track, and I’m not even Scottish. A moving mélange of upbeat numbers, beautiful ballads and historical narration, the collection captures and conveys the soul and spirit of the occasion. And while intended as an honourable homage to a glorious past, the eighteen selections are sure to stir the heads and hearts of a country who will be deciding its future in the coming months. For non-Scots like myself, For Freedom Alone is a sound education in history.
The Scottish Diaspora
There are over 50 million people of Scottish ancestry around the world, with most in Canada, the United States and Australia. Accordingly, this 39-song, 2-CD collection reflects those emigration patters, with an emphasis on contemporary North American artists, including strong selections from the likes of Natalie MacMaster, Alan Mills and Stan Rogers. Still, both long-time listeners and those new to the genre will enjoy this moving and melodic mélange of traditional tunes. Standout tracks include North-West Passage by The McCalmans, Indigo Blue by Robin Laing, Siobhan Miller’s River of Steel, and a stirring version of Maggie’s Pancakes by Salsa Celtica – each will be sure to bring both a twinkle and a tear to the eyes of ex-pats looking for a sweet sonic slice of home.
Emerald – Musical Gems
It is testament to Celtic Woman’s mammoth popularity that their latest recording Emerald was available for mass download via various torrent sites within hours of its release. The appeal is understandable; the Irish quartet is easy on both the eyes and ears, and weaves a winning formula of soft, flowing melodies and soaring vocal harmonies. The group’s trademark of turning a trick on traditional tunes is at play again here; Mo Ghile Mear, Dulaman and Nil Se n La will tug at heart-strings, as will Danny Boy, You Raise Me Up and the irresistible The Parting Glass. While it may be a case of plus-ca-change plus c’est la meme chose, this one adheres to the age-old adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Originally from small-town Nova Scotia, twenty-something singer/songwriter Crissi Cochrane recently relocated to Windsor, Ontario. The new proximity to Detroit has influenced her third recording; hints of soul, r ‘n’ b, bossa nova, jazz and gospel weave their way like musical threads through a foundation of folk-inspired melodies. The result is a smooth and satisfying selection of songs that solidify her status alongside fellow Canadian songstress Jill Barber. Highlights include And Still We Move, Pretty Words and the gentle touch of Nobody’s Bird, each of which showcase strong songwriting paired with authoritative arrangement and accompaniment. Little Sway is an excellent effort by an emerging artist with a very bright future, and a perfect fit for a soiree of whisky-sours or a late night Bailey’s over ice.
The Tall Islands
Listeners looking to spice-up their playlist palate will love this one; a unique hybrid of Latin and traditional Celtic music, The Tall Islands is the 6th release from Scottish-South American dancehall divas Salsa Celtica. The customs-crossing collective gets down and dirty with twelve terrific tunes that will have hips swayin’ and shoulders shakin’ from the opening salvo to the closing chorus. Tracks like Primavera, Descagra Gaelicia, and An Danns Elegua caress the soul, while the sexy Rumba Del Mar and Yo Me Voy II bring the body-heat. More than a collection of up-tempo numbers, however, this is a powerful example of the contemporary Celtic Diaspora, where collisions in culture leave a wake of musical possibilities; seventeen musicians from five countries make for one rollicking recording.
The High Kings
Friends For Life
Like architecture, songwriting is both an art and science where unique elements are molded into a standing structure. With Friends For Life, the fourth release from Dublin’s The High Kings, all of the pieces are in place; strong arrangements and production lay a solid foundation upon which the instrumentation – guitars, banjo, accordion, fiddle, tin whistle and percussion – splash colour and flavor. Soaring vocal harmonies are sprinkled atop all twelve tracks, bringing style and soul to each construct of chords. That deus ex machina, a true Irish trait, means the young quartet’s music – by turns tender and tough – is more than the sum of its parts. And, like the songs of Mumford & Sons, The Dubliners and The Waterboys, it is built to last.
Glasgow-based ‘post-rock’ quintet Mogwai enjoys great critical and popular acclaim across Europe and elsewhere, though success has largely eluded them in North America. Perhaps the band’s atmospheric sounds are too subtle for mass-commercialized markets. The loss is ours, sadly, as Rave Tapes runs the ethereal and emotional gamut, a hypnotic – and mostly instrumental – sonic soundtrack of guitars, moog synthesizers and live percussion (no digital drum sampling here). The result is a moving mélange of music that sits somewhere between Pink Floyd and Sonic Youth, Philip Glass and Radiohead; intelligent, progressive, artsy and avant-garde. While the ‘surf & scan’ crowd might not take to Mogwai’s lengthier and complex compositions, it is unlikely that the band will adapt to market demand. And here’s hoping they never do.
For King and Country
I once asked Leonard Cohen when he knew that he had written a good song. He replied that a good song was one that could hold its own without lavish orchestration and production; one that sounded strong on only an acoustic guitar or solo piano. Nova Scotia stalwarts The Stanfields do just that on For King and Country, a stripped-down ten-song trek into Celtic terrain that showcases the band’s love for a sure and simple song. Highlights include the rollicking Whistle and a Grin, the rootsy Up the Mountain, and the Springsteen-inspired numbers A Free Country and Vermillion River. Going ‘unplugged’ is a good step for a great young band looking to expand their listening audience. Certainly, Mr. Cohen would approve of this excellent effort.
Kizzy Meriel Crawford
How this one slipped through the cracks is beyond me. The young mixed-race, Welsh speaking singer-songwriter bares her Bajan soul with a strong and spirited six song selection. Raised on trad, roots, r’n’b, reggae and soft jazz, the 17 year-old describes her sound as ‘folk-fusion’ – an apt account as Temporary Zone stands upon the shoulders of musical giants Tracy Chapman, Tuck & Patti, Cassandra Wilson and Sade, yet shines with a sure sense of self. As such, this isn’t your usual singer-songwriter fare, as Crawford seamlessly winds and weaves her way through each melody with a heartfelt, and sometimes haunting, authenticity unmatched by her peers. In an oversaturated marketplace, where a girl and her guitar are a dime-a-dozen, ‘Kizzy’ rises above the noise.
Following up on the great critical and popular acclaim of her 2009 debut recording Elemental, Cape Breton fiddler Gillian Boucher hits home with Attuned, a terrific ten-track trip through traditional and contemporary musical territory. Accompanied by guitar virtuoso Seph Peters, toes will be tappin’ with Feisty Farral O’Gara, Jigaroo and Reeling. The quieter Neil Gow’s Lament and O’er the Moor Among the Heather showcase Boucher’s subtle and supple finger-stylings, while Marnie Swanson is both plush and poised. The frolic of Gaelic Medley and Asturian Jig Set work well, harkening listeners back to a time when a fun, festive soiree meant sitting alongside friends and family in the parlour with a hot cuppa’ tea and a dram of the good stuff. An excellent and inspired effort.
Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions
Scottish nerd-pop rockers Franz Ferdinand return with their fourth full-length studio recording, their first in four years. Ringing guitars, bopping beats, cheesy keys, hearty hooks and catchy choruses abound through all of the album’s ten tracks. And that’s the problem. While songs like Right Action, Love Illumination, Bullet and Brief Encounters each hold their own, there is a staleness here – like its 2005 all over again. Even the infectious Stand on the Horizon can’t save the Glasgow quartet from sitting in the shadows of their indie peers, a pale imitation of Arcade Fire. As such, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions is a wrong step for the band, and a prompt that, to the fickle musical ear, it is no longer hip to be square.
The Bones of What You Believe
At the other end of Glasgow’s sonic spectrum, and on the cutting edge of nu-music, is Scottish synthpop trio Chvrches. Touches of Prince, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush and the Cocteau Twins pepper the band’s debut effort, by turns ethereal and energized. Outspoken and often controversial vocalist Lauren Mayberry soars like doves over an array of electronic drums and keyboards. The highlights here, among a sea of pleasant surprises, are slap-happy tracks The Mother We Share, Gun, Lungs, Strong Hand, and the uber-moody Tether and You Caught the Light. Make no mistake; The Bones of What You Believe isn’t the latest round of re-hashed 80’s re-takes – this is avant-garde pop at its finest, and the real deal for drinking, dancing or curling up on the couch.
Drowning the Shamrock
The deep South might not be the first place that comes to mind when considering Celtic music, but Birmingham, Alabama-based sextet Jasper Coal might have you thinking differently. The opening pipes of Big Jig Set, the rousing chorus of Crooked Jack and the rollicking fiddle of Jamie Raeburn highlight this ten-song effort with style and swagger. The banjo, acoustic guitars and tin whistles accentuate the positive on Gather Up the Pots, Step it Out Mary and The Foggy Dew, and the acapella Parting Glass is a fine way to ring out 2013. Interestingly, the band shows its southern roots with the faintest traces of blues, bluegrass and gospel. To that end, Drowning the Shamrock might signal a new hybrid in the ever-evolving Celtic musical canon.