HANNAH RARITY – ‘Neath The Gloaming Star (Own Label, HR085NEA)

Gloaming StarWinner of 2018’s BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician award, Hannah Rarity, has just successfully crowdsourced her debut album, and it’s exquisitely lovely. ‘Neath The Gloaming Star’ can only – rightly – enhance her growing reputation within Scottish traditional music.

Rarity has that crystal clarity often found in female Celtic voices, but with a misty breathiness around the edges. Her pure diction makes it a joy to follow her expressive storytelling as she makes tiny tweaks in rhythm or tempo, acutely adjusting phrasing to keep the listener hanging onto every word.

Opener, ‘The Moon Shined On My Bed Last Night’ foregrounds that voice, sparsely instrumented with piano and guitar. As the verses progress, the instrumentation intensifies and her singing gains force. It’s a strong start on an album of well-judged arrangements, like the loose groove and layered vocal of title track, ‘Neath The Gloamin’ Star At E’en’. There are other neat touches like the descending fiddle phrase as ugly witch ‘Alison Cross’ strikes her reluctant suitor down to the ground. Only some brief electric guitar harshness on a slowed-down ‘Braw Sailin’ On The Sea’ provides a minor jarring moment.

A couple of songs from Rarity’s 2016 EP, ‘Beginnings’ are redrawn here for a bigger band. Andy M Stewart’s ‘Where Are You (Tonight, I Wonder)?’ is thoughtful and intimate, taken slowly, underpinned by dark strings, piano and muted whistle, yet some of its former intensity is subdued. Conal McDonagh’s elegant whistle also rounds out a fuller arrangement of that lively tale of mistaken identity, ‘Erin Go Bragh’. (The short, fronted ‘a’ sound used here for “bragh” might well be logical, but it rather irksomely defeats the song’s internal rhyme scheme).

Both of Rarity’s featured self-compositions slot deservedly well into the album. The modernity of ‘Wander Through This Land’, punctuated by a soft, militaristic drum, is evident in its choppier phrasing and rhythms, whilst ‘Wasting Time’ reveals an intriguing, throatier aspect to her voice.

Moving performances of ‘Land O’The Leal’ and ‘Hallowe’en’ are reminders of the strength of Rarity’s interpretative talents, while Davy Steele’s ‘Rose O’Summerlee’ makes a perfect album closer, the vocal interwoven with Phil Cunningham’s tender accordion is simply stunning.

Su O’Brien

Artist website: www.hannahrarity.com

‘Land O’ The Leal’ – live:

FAIRYTALE – Autumn’s Crown (Magic Mile Music, MMM41112)

Autumn's CrownGerman folk-rockers Fairytale cunningly release their second album, Autumn’s Crown, as the first signs of seasonal change appear. Having already secured the support of some of Ireland’s biggest musical names, this follow-up to 2015’s Forest Of Summer is clearly aiming for wider UK recognition.

Singer-songwriter Oliver Oppermann (guitars, mandolins, Irish bouzoukis, vocals) is the band’s Svengali, although he modestly tucks himself away in the middle of the cd booklet, along with mono-syllabic cellist, Moon. Cover duties instead fall to the glamorously ringleted and mediaevally-garbed Laura Isabel Biastoch (vocals) and Berit Coenders (violin,viola,vocals). Let’s pause briefly at the cover art and wonder who felt this soft-focus Robin Hood look was just what the band needed.

Undeniably, there’s some very fine musicianship on offer, Coenders and Oppermann in particular are skilful manipulators of their instruments. Oppermann’s sympathy for and understanding of the Irish tradition is plainly demonstrated in ‘Mushroom Foray’ and album closer, the homage ‘Donegal’ (he acknowledges Manus Lunny’s tuition in the sleeve notes).

Those lyrics, though. The English-language songs tend towards a fantasy-by-numbers of mystical woods and waters, runic magic and elves. In ‘As Old As Time’ words sit heavily on a slim melody. For this listener’s tastes at least, it’s all a bit incense-smoky, too much fey and whimsy, over-reliant on ritualistic chanting to lend atmosphere.

Interestingly, the two songs in German are among the best here, perhaps because they lack that twee sentimentality. The dervish moonlight waltz of ghostly dancers in ‘Wassergeister’ and the powerful death-lure of ‘Am Weiher’ both invoke the dark mystery of water.

That said, there are some interesting ideas that work well, like the chanted chorus of ‘Waterfall’ and the acoustic rock of ‘The Dark Elves’ with added crows rising over Moon’s dark cello. ‘Living In The Wood’ and the skipping ‘Mando Dance’ have solidly folk roots and the poppish ‘Moonway’ might appeal to fans of Sally Oldfield’s ‘Moonlight Shadow’.

With tight harmonies and spacious production, there’s room to hear every part of the carefully-constructed soundscape. And it does feel like a construct: slick, contrived even. It would be instructive to see them live to try to understand them better and perhaps find the heart in their music.
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).

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Artist website: www.fairytale-folkmusic.de

‘Autumn’s Crown’ – official video:

ASSYNT – Road To The North (Garthland Records, GAR001CD)

Road To The NorthThe trio of musicians who make up Assynt may still only be in their 20s but between them have already amassed a barrowload of nominations and awards. Having worked with many of Scotland’s finest musicians, this year they finally came together as Assynt (named after an area of North-West Scotland). So, as the first album from this newly-minted group, there’s plenty of anticipation surrounding Road To The North.

That it’s an album of largely original material is the first of many pleasant surprises. Pipes and whistles man David Shedden contributes by far the largest share, although Graham Mackenzie (fiddle) and Innes White (guitar / mandolin) demonstrate equally strong composition skills. Only the final track, ‘Harris Dance’ presents a set of traditional tunes, drawing the line of continuity between old and new.

White’s understated playing is the keystone to the band, holding the centre rhythmically and with great sensitivity. Sometimes loose and jazzy (‘Fiend And The Hound’), at other times hinting at Spanish style (‘Aidan Jack’), or playfully riding the beat on ‘No Way Out’, he’s got flair to spare. On the lovely ‘Ava May’, his spare accompaniment underscores a lyrical lament very much in the Highland tradition.

Sheddon’s vigorous and nimble piping is at the fore on ‘The One Upper’ and title track, ‘Road To The North’. Mackenzie, whose clean style tends to minimal vibrato afterburn, readily matches or complements him, as the tunes demand. Frequently, fiddle and pipes/whistles are tightly and intricately entwined, moving effortlessly from mirroring the melody to chasing around and playing tag with it, as on ‘Forward Thinking’. On the smartly drilled ‘Garthland Drive’ they wreathe and twine sinuously around each other, whilst ‘Conal McDonagh’s’ initially moody fiddle gets bowled over by some frenzied pipes as they spin off in a rapidly turning pattern.

The interplay between these three musicians is deft and subtle, the tuneset bridging transitions smooth. There can be no doubting the quality of their composition, arranging and playing together. If they’re this good when they’re just starting out together, imagine what Assynt could become.

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.

Artists’ website: www.assyntmusic.com

‘The One Upper’ – live:

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’: