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MICHAEL FLATLEY – On A Different Note (Unicorn Entertainments)

There’s one thing Michael Flatley can never be accused of and that’s shying away from his own self-created public image. More established these days for his dancing prowess many may have forgotten or not even known that he is also a highly talented flute player…in fact…as an ex-all Ireland champion no less he can more than hold his own with the best of them! This album is a double CD featuring 25 sets of predominantly traditional tunes mostly given folk-rock arrangements although you wouldn’t have necessarily know the tunes were traditional (“Morrison’s Jig” and “Spanish Cloak” etc) as each set is given a general title but never broken down to its component parts or for that matter credited as traditional. Still, let’s face it, in this modern age of ours what’s a copyright payment between friends? It’ll probably come as no surprise to those that know me know I enjoy my folk-rock with a bit of fire in the belly and in this Flatley does not disappoint. Outrageous gestures on a grandiose scale such as the opening track “Rise Of The Tiger” feature alongside more subtle moments including the bluesy “So Easy” and “Whispering Winds” from his previous show Feet Of Flames. I’ve always been of the opinion that if money is no object then the production should convey this and hopefully, so long as you are prepared to be as broadminded as I am and put aside any cynical differences of it appearing ‘flash and artless’ the overriding effect will be pleasing to a far wider demographic and in this instance it’s a case of ‘job well done’. Perhaps not in the same league as Michael McGoldrick when it comes to displays of technical flamboyance Flatley is without doubt a fine musician whose heart lies squarely with his traditional roots and the ‘folk’ world should be proud we can count him as one of our own. PETE FYFE

The Scoville Units (Get Real Records, 2011)

Originally formed for a one-off appearance at Celtic Connections, the lure of cementing this musical relationship in the studio proved irresistible for The Scoville Units. British banjo wizard, Leon Hunt, was originally called upon to concoct this ensemble, and he wasted no time in bringing together some of the foremost talents in acoustic music, each renowned for their characterful, genre-traversing style. Former member of Flook, Ed Boyd, lines up the pulsing rhythms of his guitar alongside Josh Clarke’s subtle yet vibrant percussion, the vivacious mandolin of Rex Preston, the sturdy double bass of Miranda Sykes, and the jazz-infused hues of Gina Griffin’s uninhibited fiddle. Griffin also adds her deliciously laid-back vocals to the mix, further embellishing the diverse sounds that permeate the band’s mix of traditional and self-penned material.

Right from the off, the band display a heady fusion of traditions from either side of the Atlantic, with a bluegrass-infused interpretation of “Scarborough Fair” bursting to life with animated ornamentations that imbue the melody’s natural sobriety with a contagious and at times triumphant ebullience.

The restraint with which “Glory at the Meeting House” begins, really whets the appetite with a gentle precision that teases each note from the various strings, underpinned by the subtle rolling rhythm of a laconic cajon. It’s almost like listening in slow motion, and a rare moment during which one can really take in the individual prowess and subtleties that each musician contributes.

If it’s pulsating, racy music that floats your boat, then your boat will be well and truly carried away in an almighty ocean swell. The traditional “Hangman’s Reel” embodies every aural quirk that the band
has to offer, with the banjo, mandolin and fiddle racing each other in a seamlessly flamboyant bluegrass flurry, hurried along by the chasing rhythms of guitar and percussion.

Gina Griffin’s wonderfully unfussy, unaffected vocals grace a few tracks, bringing a glowing effervescence as she skips joyously through “Angeline,” and an honest warmth as she wraps her voice around the wistful lyrics of her own composition, “White Pebbles.” Her improvised scat vocals lend a full-bodied nonchalance to some of the tunes, and a distinct jazz tinge to the band’s otherwise traditional sounds.

This album provides an invigorating and intoxicating fusion of bluegrass and Celtic music, with each musician occupying a very distinct, left-of-centre position on the genre spectrum, which results
in music that never settles for a predictable comfort zone, but pushes subtly at genre boundaries with an understated panache. It works so well, simply because it sounds so effortless.

One might suggest that The Scoville Units do a fine job of filling the gap left by Nickel Creek; one might equally suggest that they possibly outclass them. Mike Wilson

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UNUSUAL SUSPECTS – Big Like This (Big Bash Records BBRCD017)

Well, if the opening track “Pressed For Time/Hull’s Reel/St Kilda Wedding” doesn’t put a grin on your face the size of the Cheddar Gorge then you must be watching too much X-Factor or I’m A Celebrity and if you are, shame on you…only joking those of you that are! Unlike either of those particular shows this powerful sixteen-piece band (seventeen if you count ex-Iron Horse guest vocalist Annie Grace) has more personality and a real ‘folk’ factor that will have you hitting the replay button on your CD player on numerous occasions such is the majestic sound of the Highland pipes in full flow swelled by a horn section to die for. I’m afraid I can’t list all of the musicians individually (as much as I’d like to) but with stand-out performances by the sadly missed Bachue (Corrina Hewat & Dave Milligan) and flugelhorn of Ryan Quigley I couldn’t recommend an album more highly. OK, so we know the band can kick butt when required but to counter the party groove the inclusion of more chilled out material including “Time Wears Awa’” sung with aplomb in laid back Jazz style by Hewat provides the listener with a sultry performance that would make Liane Carroll proud. I can’t say it more clearly. If you like your music with bite and charm in equal measures then I suggest you order this recording at the earliest opportunity and as Colin Crompton of the Wheeltappers And Shunters may have said “I’ll give it ten!” Further info from PETE FYFE

LOREENA McKENNITT – The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Quinlan Records QRCD114)

I’ve followed Loreena McKennitt’s career for over two decades and she has never failed to captivate me with her slightly mannered vocals and well-crafted musical landscapes. I use the term ‘mannered’ as unlike so many of her contemporaries enunciation is primary in her delivery. That’s not to dismiss it as some half-hearted attempt at snobbery it’s just that (for a change) you can understand every word…and I do mean every word. McKennitt has not immersed herself so fully in the tradition since her debut album ‘Elemntal’ in 1985 but the passage of time merges seamlessly and following on from her more extravagant encounters with the folk-rock genre with full band backing she has chosen a more or less acoustic path with this recording. Securing the services of thirteen musicians including long-time associates Brian Hughes (guitars and bouzouki) and Hugh Marsh (violin) along with established exponents Tony McManus (guitar) and Caroline Lavelle (cello) the songs including “As I Roved Out” and “Death Of Queen Jane” along with a sparse arrangement of the instrumental “Brian Boru’s March” are sparingly approached without being boring. Finally, and don’t get me wrong but with a credits list that reads like a Hollywood blockbuster it is the audio delight issuing from that little silver platter that makes for a more than rewarding listen and a welcome addition to anyone who enjoys their music with a penchant for all things traditional. PETE FYFE

EMILY SMITH – Traiveller’s Joy (White Fall Records WFRCD004)

Since 2002 when she won Scotland’s Young Traditional Music Award Emily Smith has garnered many accolades from the folk music press with no less than Mike Harding citing “…As far as I’m concerned she can walk on water!” Possibly a little over the top but certainly heading in the right direction this young lady is a fair old chanter and in company with her musicians including James Fagan, Stuart Duncan and long-time collaborator Jamie McClennan makes a more than pleasurable sound. With a traditional background it’s unsurprising to find the likes of “Gypsy Davy”, and “Lord Donald” in her repertoire along with Richard Thompson’s “Waltzing’s For Dreamers” and her own self composed tracks nestling comfortably within a set that showcases her not inconsiderable talents as both musician and songwriter. Possibly my favourite track on the album is the gently sweeping acoustic funk of “Sweet Lover Of Mine” a setting of one of many traditional puzzle songs although I have to say that the rather abrupt ending isn’t quite so much to my taste. Perhaps it could have been rounded off by a tune…but, a minor quibble on what is a well-produced recording and a further feather to Smith’s burgeoning career. PETE FYFE

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CHRIS NEWMAN – Still Getting Away With It (Old Bridge Music OBMCD19)

Chris Newman is not only a really nice bloke but also one of my favourite ‘folk’ guitarists along with Simon Nicol, Frank Simon (ex-Bully Wee), Ken Nicol, Arty McGlynn and Tony McManus now that you ask…so, it goes without saying that I always expect great things and of course, Chris never fails to deliver. Forty years? Is that really how long he’s been plying his trade? Well, it would appear so from the information gleaned from the press notes and getting down to the nitty-gritty from the exquisite delicacy of the self-composed opening track “Pear Drops And Fourteen Pounds” (written to celebrate his earliest paid gigs) you can feel comfortable in the knowledge that here is a master-craftsman at the peak of his abilities. Surrounding himself with an equally talented bunch of musicians including partner Maire Ni Chathasaigh (harp), his brother Mark on guitar, Nollaig Casey (violin), Arty McGlynn (guitars) and Simon Mayor on mandolin the music presented is nothing short of astonishing! Virtuosity abounds from the fingers of Newman and as you go through the album you will be left breathless by the beauty of it all. With ten of his own compositions running alongside traditional numbers including “The Humours Of Kiltyclogher/Gusty’s Frolics” and the often utilised “Silver Spire” leading into the major/minor American country tune “The Cattle In The Cane” the quality of Newman’s digital dexterity are never in question. For those budding guitarists amongst you I couldn’t recommend an album more highly. Sit down (you’ll need to) listen and above all enjoy. PETE FYFE