GRÁINNE HOLLAND – Corcra (Gráinne Holland GH003)

CorcraGráinne Holland released Corcra on February 1st. This is her third album, but Corcra is the first album of her own original material. Holland was born and raised in Belfast, bi-lingual in both English and Gaelic, and with a love of Irish music from her early years.

When I got the chance to review the album, I did what I always do – listened briefly to Holland’s music on YouTube – thought it was rather nice….but also pointed out that I don’t speak Gaelic and maybe someone else should get the chance first? The succinct reply I got was “I don’t speak Gaelic either but I love the sound of it” – the album was immediately in the post. A third person, a singer, walking past the door when I was playing the album, loved the sound of it. So, from a random sample of three, we have 100% agreement that Corcra is a delight – whether you understand its full subtleties (just over half the album is Gaelic songs) or just feel the beauty of the music and the singing.

The video below is of ‘Lon Dubh an Gheimhridh’ where you can hear Holland breathily giving voice to a beautiful, slow song about Black Winter “I often experience a sadness in winter when the days grow shorter, the trees lose their leaves and everything seems to sleep. I wrote this song about that feeling” is her description of the song. I sent the YouTube link to an Irish friend who gave me some translations and included in her reply was the comment “Atmospheric, but not cheerful”. Holland’s songwrititng clearly hits the spot she was wanting to capture (and by now I have four out of four positive reviews to elements of this album).

There are optimistic songs on here as well. The album opens with ‘Mise agus Tusa’ (Me And You) which is “a love song I wrote about my husband” and ‘Coinsias, Corp agus Croi’ “a song I wrote about beginning to feel alive again after a very dark time in my life”, the first track skipping along and the second more thoughtful but with a rising chorus. ‘Ni Chluinim, Ni Fheicim’ bounds along, appropriately for a song about “focusing on the positive and beautiful things in life rather than the negative”.

‘Goodbye Love’ is what it says, a song about saying goodbye but both musically and lyrically is a grown-up farewell – slow-ish tune, but not mournful, with a lyric that includes emotionally mature lines such as “My heart will always hold a piece of you/Goodbye love”; ‘Harry’s’ is a song about Holland’s late father; ‘Beal Feirste’ a tribute to hometown Belfast as Holland leaves the city for the countryside; ‘An Ri Rua’ is “ a song about two little birds who died together after flying into my window at home” – I have no idea about the lyrics, but I love the musicality of the song.

There is a consistently quality to Corcra, Holland’s vocals holding you throughout the album, supported by a range of musicians and a rather nice production by Brian Finnegan. My favourite track, if it’s possible to choose given this level of consistent quality, is the closing track ‘Miracle’ a song written after the birth of Holland’s first child. It’s quite simple both lyrically and musically (piano and vocal mostly) “miracle of mine/a creation so divine…..when I take your hand in mine I see forever/what’s gone before, what’s now and what’s to come”. But, though simple, it avoids sentimentality and captures that sheer joy of new birth and the way it changes our perception of ourselves and our surrounding world.

Holland’s earlier albums were traditional songs in contemporary arrangements, Corcra shows that she can also compose her own powerfully atmospheric songs – great to listen to even though I don’t understand all the lyrics. There are no gigs planned at the moment but I’d think this is an album worth a tour/festival sometime soon.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website: https://www.grainneholland.com/grainne/

‘Lon Dubh an Gheimhridh’:

Gráinne Holland releases her first album of original songs

Gráinne Holland

Corcra is Gráinne’s first album of her own original songs. It was produced by renowned musician Brian Finnegan, recorded by Seán Óg Graham and features the best of Irish and Scottish musicians including Aidan O’Rourke, Liam Bradley, Brendan Mullholland and Cormac Mac Carthy. When it comes to the songs, the stunning opener is ‘Mise Agus Tusa’, meaning me and you, a beautiful song written for her husband Frainc, Harry’s, a song about her father which she wrote shortly after his death in 2007 and ‘Lonn Dubh an Gheimhridh’ which describes the sadness that we often experience in winter when the days grow shorter, the trees lose their leaves and everything seems to sleep. Gráinne wrote this song about just that feeling. On a lighter note we have ‘Miracle’, written after the birth of her first son and ‘Béal Feirste’, a tribute to her home town of Belfast.

Born and raised in Belfast, Gráinne’s love of Irish music and song began at an early age. A product of the Gaelic language revival in the North of Ireland, she was brought up with both Gaelic and English and attended the first Gaelic-medium school in Belfast. It was here that her love of traditional song was fostered.

Gráinne released her debut album of traditional songs with contemporary arrangements; Teanga na nGael in 2011 to great critical acclaim. She followed it up with a second studio album Gaelré in 2015 which was published under the Gael Linn label. Gráinne has toured and performed at many major festivals both at home and abroad. She is also a successful producer and presenter in Irish language media.

“Gráinne’s voice soars and swoops and glides like a swallow in the sublime Irish summer sky” Damien Dempsey

Artist’s website: www.grainneholland.com

‘Lonn Dubh an Gheimhridh’ – official vdeo:

THE SHEE – Continuum (Shee Records SHEE4)

ContinuumThe concept behind Continuum, supported by Celtic Connections, was to celebrate their tenth anniversary by having each of them commission a musician of their choice to write a piece of music for the album. That’s only half the story, of course, for the band had then to arrange the music for six players and write some pieces to bind the whole thing together.

The opening song is ‘From The Shadows’ by Laura-Beth Salter. It’s a powerful call to arms to … ah, well. It could be a feminist piece, the logical first thought, but it could be a warning to the rich and powerful that the poor and oppressed aren’t going to take it any more. Next come two atmospheric pieces by Kathryn Tickell; one evoking the borders and the other with a Scandinavian feel. The playing, needless to say, is exquisite.

Rachel Newton commissioned Karine Polwart and the result is ‘Song For Mary’. The Mary in question is Mary Brooksbank, composer of ‘The Jute Mill Song’ and an archive recording of one verse forms the introduction. We’re not told that it’s Mary herself but I’d like to think it is. Amy Thatcher naturally turned to a box-player and who better than Andy Cutting? Olivia Ross’ choice was Chris Wood who shares the credit for ‘Cradle Song’ with lyricist Hugh Lupton. The Shee turns what could be a pretty little song into something quite strange so you’re not sure whether this a mother singing to her baby from the safety of a warm fireside or struggling home from the storm outside.

Laura-Beth, Amy and Shona Mooney provide the next two tune sets with Shona responsible for the wonderfully titled ‘The Vampire Rabbit Of Newcastle’. Olivia wrote ‘Precious Tears’, a song for children – possibly the band members’ own – and Brian Finnegan wrote a trio of tunes with Lillias- Kinsman-Blake’s flute and a journey through India in mind. Finally, we have Martin Simpson’s song for his mother. ‘Dance With Me’ might be seen as the companion-piece to ‘Never Any Good’. Laura-Beth sings it and plays mandolin where Martin would use guitar and the band play what is almost an orchestral accompaniment.

Continuum is a monument to musical collaboration and the exchange of ideas but more than that, it is a tribute to six exceptionally talented musicians.

Dai Jeffries

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Artists’ website: https://theshee.com/

‘Ower Late For The Lasses/Sheepolska’ and more with Kathryn Tickell live at Celtic Connections 2016:

Top composers join The Shee to celebrate ten years

Top composers join The Shee to celebrate ten years
Photograph by David Boni

Multi instrumentalists and festival favourites, The Shee, have reached the ten-year milestone in their action-packed career, and intend to celebrate by creating a brand new body of original work.

Following three albums and a hectic touring schedule, the six members of the band have each approached a composer hero to write an original piece of music ahead of a prestigious premiere at Celtic Connections 2016.

The composers will then join The Shee on stage to introduce their piece and perform with the band as each is performed for the first time.

The composers are, in alphabetical order:

Andy Cutting
Brian Finnegan
Karine Polwart
Martin Simpson
Kathryn Tickell
Chris Wood   

The Shee’s accordionist, Amy Thatcher, said: ‘We can’t quite believe our luck: we’re getting some of the most influential musicians and composers on the current British folk scene to write original music for us. It’s going to be an incredible experience, and the perfect way to celebrate ten years of making music as The Shee.’

Following the premiere at Celtic Connections on 15 January 2016, the band will head back to the studio to work on a new album for release later that year.

Artists’ website: theshee.com  

Kan – Sleeper (Kan Music, 2012)

Kan are a folk quartet boasting an enviable line-up of stellar musicians who already command prominent reputations, both within the folk scene and beyond: Scotsman Aidan O’Rourke on fiddle, who has attracted much praise as part of folk wonder-trio Lau and Blazin’ Fiddles; Brian Finnegan, hailing from Armagh, on flute and whistles, formerly of Flook; Yorkshireman and multi-instrumentalist, Ian Stephenson on guitar, bass, mandolin, piano, and harmonium, a former BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner; whilst drums and percussion come courtesy of Jim Goodwin.

From the outset the stakes are pretty high, and Kan rise to the challenge superbly with this eclectic, energetic set. Variety abounds throughout, with moments of hushed subtlety building to frenzied, celebratory episodes, and whilst the musical flavours are predominantly those of the English, Irish and Scottish traditions, there is a worldly feel throughout the album. One or more of the quartet are involved in the writing of each of the eight album tracks, and coupled with arrangements that fuse the very best that each musician has to offer, they manage to create a sound that is assuredly distinct.

Opening track “One Two Three” sets the tone immediately with the percussion and guitar providing a fresh, avant-garde moodscape over which fiddle and whistles weave their sumptuous, traditional-influenced melodies; it’s a recipe that works well. Even the frequently surfacing Celtic flavours of the album are peppered with perfectly measured percussive underpinnings that feed off the natural energy of the melodies rather than overwhelm them. It maybe comes as no surprise to note that the masterful Calum Malcolm is responsible for the mixing of this album, and no doubt the well measured balance of this recording owes much to his involvement.

Sleeper is an album that is positively effervescent, treading a path of fusion that others frequently get so wrong. Seducing with its expansive, understated moments, and arousing with its explosive energy, it’s an album that will appeal to both the discerning individual listener as well as the massed carousal of a festival audience.

Mike Wilson

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MIRANDA SYKES & REX PRESTON – HANDS ON MUSIC HMCD035

Miranda and Rex play together in The Scoville Units, purveyors of Celtic bluegrass. Miranda is, of course, well known as the third member of Show Of Hands and Rex is a rising star in mandolin-playing circles, working with Cara Dillon and Brian Finnegan.

It’s clear from the start that their backgrounds have shaped their debut album together. The songs are mostly covers with one original instrumental and a traditional arrangement from Rex. The first two songs are by Kate Rusby and Karine Polwart – the latter being a gorgeous gently rocking version of ‘Only One Way’ – and from the first few notes you know that this is something rather special. The sound is incredibly rich and I searched in vain for a list of guest musicians. There is a guitar in there and I’m guessing that Rex plays it but top marks for production whoever it is.

Later writer credits might be unfamiliar unless you’re deeply immersed in American roots songwriters. Karin Bergquist, Ryan Roberts and Peter Bradley Adams are not exactly household names in the UK so Miranda and Rex have had their pick of some fine songs. Miranda’s voice is flexible and expressive from the delicacy of ‘Between Sheets’ to the jazziness of ‘Sweet Pea/Mean To Me’ and ‘Trouble’ and you can only marvel at Rex’s playing. From simple ingredients Miranda and Rex have created an exceptionally good album.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist Web link: www.mirandasykes.com