NITEWORKS – Air Faìr An Là (Comann Music, CM002)

Air Faìr An LàIf the combined words “folk” and “electronica” bring on an attack of the vapours, a lie down with the reviving sal volatile of Niteworks’ second album Air Faìr An Là (At Dawn Of Day) might just help. The four Skye lads of Niteworks clearly love their traditional music but, obviously, generations born into techno and its offspring want to reflect contemporary sounds, too. If Martyn Bennett was a pioneer in this field, Niteworks are most ably picking up the reins and forging forward on their own account.

This time around, they’ve engaged top techno producer Alex Menzies (aka Alex Smoke), who overcame his own initial reluctance about the project and has helped to create a vital, full-throttle album that’s subtler than it might at first appear (try the constantly mutating rhythmic pattern punctuating the 1968 spoken-word recording of Skye man, ‘Calum Ruadh MacNeacail’), and definitely stands on its own merits.

Opening with ‘Dookin’’, spacey sonics lope along until first a vibrant fiddle and then pipes drop in, hoisting the melody line across a thumping drumbeat. Kinnaris Quintet’s Fiona MacAskill and her two colleagues provide excellent fiddle parts throughout.

Other guests include Julie Fowlis, whose coolly sparkling vocal soars over ever-intensifying beats in ‘Òran Fir Ghriminis’, and Lewis musician Iain Morrison who brings a slow, atmospheric version of his own song, ‘Like Wolves In The Night’.

SIAN, a trio featuring Ellen MacDonald (recently with Daìmh), deliver crisp vocals on the title track, a waulking song, and also the album’s lead single, reviewed here in a recent Singles Bar. The rapid vocal repetitions are weirdly well-complemented by an ‘80s Kraftwerk-ish bubbling undercurrent. MacDonald’s warm tones also take up ‘Do Dhà Shùil’ (‘Your Two Beady Little Eyes’), a St Kilda lullaby with a soundscape that conjures blowing sand, rattling boat masts and the sea’s sighing fall-rise.

Dragged from the very earth itself is ‘Cumhachd’ (‘Power’ or ‘Energy’): a primal incantation where Allan MacDonald’s hypnotic vocals are slowly subsumed as he picks up the tune on his pipes. More pipes feature on ‘Iain McGee’s’, this time steadily bubbling up through a trance-ish rendering of the tune, before erupting wildly out. In contrast, the increasingly dark, insistent ‘Lùths (Gabh Greim)’ wibbles along, unsteady as an old cassette tape, and closing tune ‘Highlander’s Farewell’ somehow works a traditional strathspey up into what could be an action film car chase soundtrack.

Updating traditional music can be risky, but clearly Niteworks have found their contemporary groove and, right now, they are riding it expertly.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist website: www.niteworksband.com/

Live at Celtic Connections feat. Julie Fowlis:

EFDSS NATIONAL YOUTH FOLK ENSEMBLE – Grand Arcade, Cambridge

EFDSS National Youth Folk Ensemble
Photograph by Su O’Brien

Serendipity. It’s great isn’t it? I was just leaving John Lewis (other department stores are available -Ed), doing a spot of late-night shopping, when I became aware of a largish, youthful-looking group of musicians setting up to play in Cambridge’s Grand Arcade. Nothing particularly unusual there, except that flyers and t-shirts indicated that this was the EFDSS National Youth Folk Ensemble. Needless to say, the shopping trip was rapidly abandoned in favour of spending the next 40 minutes pleasurably listening in.

Opening with a Saraband from Playford, this group of young musicians quickly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with and attracted a decent crowd, heading swiftly into the second of their 8-track set, a sweet take on Catriona MacDonald’s ‘Show Me’. The tunes and arrangements showed the ensemble off pretty well as they roved around the country from Lancashire to Cornwall. The ensemble also showed some ability to create diverse moods, although this session – sensibly enough – was crowd-rousing stuff in the main. Sam Sweeney, the ensemble’s Artistic Director, was on hand giving support to this, his second cohort of students to pass through the EFDSS programme.

It’s a very tough gig playing in the swimming-pool acoustics of a shopping arcade to a bunch of strangers passing through who didn’t actually come to see you and have other priorities anyway, so these youngsters deserve every praise for handling themselves with grace and aplomb. It’s a minor point to say that at times they seemed more intently focused on the music, perhaps slightly at the expense of giving a performance to the audience, but given the distracting environment, maybe it’s not surprising. Overall, they gave a most convincing account of the enduring vitality of folk music.

For anyone attending the Cambridge Folk Festival, the EFDSS National Youth Folk Ensemble will be opening the programme of events on Friday lunchtime, 3rd August. Do try to give them some support: the future of folk music could look a lot like them.

Su O’Brien

Artists’ website: www.efdss.org/efdss-education/national-youth-folk-ensemble

The ensemble in 2017:

SHEILA K CAMERON – Those They Chose (Glalell SKC1708CD)

Those They ChoseOver the past couple of years, Sheila K Cameron has completed the reissue of her 7-CD back catalogue and recently released Those They Chose, an album whose artless title reflects the fact that the songs featured were selected for play on the Women Of Substance podcast. It’s typical of Cameron that the title manages to be both very direct and rather oblique at the same time. The songs, which all come from her previous releases, have been remastered for this release.

Beginning in Glasgow, ‘As You Wrapped The String’, opens the album, with gentle lushness, followed by the harmonica blues lope of ‘I Looked Alright This Morning’.

The few covers featured are generally delivered quite sparely and simply, like the short, sweet ‘Drink To Me Only’. ‘The Water Is Deep’ has a quiet determination, but it’s Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time Ever’ that really goes somewhere earthy and raw. MacColl famously loathed the various versions of his song, but Cameron invests it with such emotional truth that surely even he would have been persuaded.

Musical arrangements are kept subtle, never overpowering Cameron’s voice. ‘With You In My Life’ is a touching tribute to a partner or friend, backed with gently jazzy brass that brings a touch of the 1950s. A fuzzy Hammond organ sound lurks behind the resolute blues of ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’, while ‘Go On Then’ stretches country-wards.

Cameron’s singing is not pitch-perfect but it’s absolutely authentic, intimate and lived-in, a real voice of experience making a visceral connection. She can be warm, tender and sensual as in ‘My Love Is Velvet’. On ‘Goodbye Baby Blues’ she is darkly world-weary, the long-drawn out delivery of the word ‘choose’ in the line ‘you have left me with no option but to choose these goodbye baby blues’ says everything about the pain beneath the decision. Occasionally, she adopts a semi-spoken approach, well-suited to the poetic repetition in ‘All You Really Need Is The Sea’.

Finishing up in the British Columbian archipelago of Haida Gwaii, Cameron takes her leave (for now) with the reflective, ‘Where The Last Tide Runs’. A steadfast traveller on her own road, Cameron is rare, precious and utterly unique.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist website: www.skcsongs.com

‘As You Wrapped The String Around Me’:

TRAIL WEST – From The Sea To The City (TW Records TWO1CD)

From The Sea To The CityTrail West’s third album, From The Sea To The City finds the band contemplating the often necessary transition for islanders (Hebrideans, in this case) to big centres like Glasgow. What could have been a cue for an album of wistful nostalgia is neatly sidestepped by a band that simply does not do maudlin.

With roots firmly established in ceilidh, this band does boundless energy and big sounds. Their music contains a rich heart of danceability – toes gotta tap, after all. Deceptively, album opener, ‘Bernie’s Second Debut’ begins with calming keyboards, before quickly opening out the set into vibrantly rocking bagpipes and whistles. In a similar vein are the sparky ‘The Tayvallich Turkey’ and the vigorous jig and reel set of ‘Box And Whistle’. Only on the accordion-led ‘Mary K’s Waltz’ does the pace let up for a while.

If there’s a loose thematic link between the songs, it’s a general sense of dislocation or displacement, from the economic exile of ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’, an homage to the Irish construction worker, to the regretful Napoleonic soldier of ‘Óran An T-Saighdeir’, or ‘The Mermaid’ claiming her unfortunate sailors.

Love – won, lost and uncertain – reflects another aspect of change. The bittersweet ‘Mo Ghruaghach Dhonn’ and lamenting broadside ballad ‘Belfast Mountains’ are balanced by ‘Cast My Wish Upon The Sea’, a pacy, countryish song with a driving guitar. The slightly stalkerish narrator of ‘Take Me Home’ should back off from standing outside his lost love’s door, and take some advice from Andy M Stewart’s ‘Take Her In Your Arms’ in which dark thoughts are shrugged off in favour of learning to love well.

There are many musical moods and styles evoked across the album, showing the evolution of the band’s musical palette. Instrument prominence is smoothly and swiftly switched, giving plenty of flexibility within a cohesive whole. Expanding the band line-up has also added extra vigour and potential to their sound.

Rounding off with ‘Mo Dhùthaich’ (My Country) suggests that, however difficult it may be to leave places and people, it all helps form their essential Scottishness. The album version feels somehow both serious as well as celebratory, so it’s worth searching out a video version of it performed live. Trail West’s albums stand on their own merit, but the live experience is surely where they fully come into their own.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist website: www.trail-west.com

CLANNAD – Turas 1980 (Made In Germany Music, MIG02092)

TurasOn the heels of their 1979 US tour – the longest by any Irish band back then – a five-piece Clannad fetched up in Germany having their live show recorded by Radio Bremen. Previously unbroadcast, the recently resurfaced recordings are now available as Turas 1980 (“an turas” meaning “a journey”), a twenty-track double album. Drawing on the band’s early output, the album also features some otherwise unrecorded tracks. It’s a collector’s dream.

It also represents a fascinating point in the band’s evolution. After ten years together, this Donegal family group was on the cusp of achieving unimaginable mainstream global success. Yet here they are, unaware of what’s yet to come, just happy playing to their strong German fanbase.

The live radio recording was a first for the band and Máire Brennan recalls how nervous they all were, although it doesn’t show. This is intensely powerful, rooted and earthy music with a curious timelessness. In tunes like opener ‘Turas Carolan’, the beguiling air of ‘Paddy’s Rambles Through The Fields’ or ‘The Old Couple’, there’s almost a sense of a timeslip: a sidelong glimpse revealing something ancient, raw and deep from the land.

The tracks here also lack much of the misty ethereality characteristic of some of Clannad’s later output, although the roots of it can clearly be heard in songs like ‘Siúil a Rún’ and the bell-like ‘Dúlamán’. The band’s legendary tight harmonies and Moya Brennan’s cool flowing water vocals are beautifully represented, particularly on ‘Valparaiso’ and ‘Máire Bhruinneall’.

The musical tightness and versatility of the band is evident, too. A standard like ‘Down By The Salley Gardens’ may be taken at a respectful, stately pace, but an entirely different mood emerges from the looser, jazzy bass interludes of ‘Níl Sé’n Lá’ that closes the album.

As to sound quality, the music is excellent with all the band parts crisply audible and a pure clean sound. During the often drily witty between-song chat, there is some quality loss and distracting ambient noise, but it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise excellent live recording. It does repay quality audio replay, as the lossy formats don’t really do it justice.

Surviving members of Clannad were involved in bringing this album to fruition and it stands proudly both as an historical memento and a bittersweet memorial to absent friends: to founder Pádraig Duggan, as well as “father of the band” Leo Brennan. It’s a glorious and appropriate tribute.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist website: https://www.facebook.com/ClannadMusic/

A selection of Clannad songs recorded in 1978:

ALISTAIR McCULLOCH TRIO – Off The Hook (Rostral Records RTRLCD015)

Off The HookThe Alistair McCulloch Trio summer tour has become a well-established Scottish fixture over many years now, yet this busy bunch has only just got around to recording an album. Thankfully, they have now whittled down their extensive live repertoire to the ten excellent tracks featured on Off The Hook.

Alongside legendary fiddle maestro Alistair McCulloch, the band consists of Capercaillie founder Marc Duff and Aaron Jones of Old Blind Dogs/The Kate Rusby Band. With a musical pedigree like that – McCulloch alone is 25 years a professional musician – it’s no surprise to find superb playing that’s ultra-tight, harmonious and lithe.

Aiming to capture the band’s live sound as closely as possible, the album also demonstrates a broad-church approach to its musical choices. In a 2013 interview, McCulloch said, “You’ve always got to maintain an open mind and remember folk is an evolving tradition. If you let it stand still then it will stagnate” and this album continues that commitment. Reworkings of traditional tunes and songs nestle comfortably alongside contemporary compositions, with changes to phrasing, rhythm, key or tempo allowing them to flow logically, often virtually seamlessly together.

The tune sets are inspired: ‘Mazurkas’ delicately re-phrases a pair of waltzes, while ‘Brady’s Set’ – with Duff on bodhran – connects four storming jigs. ‘Whistle Solo’ consists of a waltz and two reels, arranged by Jones and Duff, the subtlety of the guitar letting the whistle shine.

‘Shetland Medley’ draws the listener through a range of moods, starting with the tense, spare ‘Da Day Dawn’ (a traditional Shetland Christmas Day tune) and winding up at the lively ‘The Lass That Made The Bed For Me’. ‘Xesus’ takes John McCusker’s thoughtful ‘Xesus and Felicia’, letting it just about melt into ‘Farley Bridge’ with a sensitive arrangement, before a final high-speed romp through ‘The Calgary Fiddlers Welcome To Scotland’. This is first-rate tune setting and no mistake, always conscious of how each piece interacts with the next, with the whole and with the overall atmosphere.

Jones fronts the three songs on the album, each a considered reclamation of a well-trodden classic. In particular, ‘The Wild Rover’, which shrugs off its bar room machismo, becoming instead maturely rueful and reflective.

It may have been a long wait, but for those already fans of the Alistair McCulloch Trio it will have been well worth it. For those new to the trio, Off The Hook stands up as an album of top quality music-making and a hugely entertaining masterclass in how to set tunes.

Su O’Brien

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist website: www.alistairmcculloch.com

Four reels filmed during the 2017 tour: