THE PAUL McKENNA BAND – Breathe (own label PMB002CD)

BreatheThe Paul McKenna Band is a Glasgow-based five-piece, lining up as Robbie Greig on fiddle, Conar Markey on banjo, bouzouki, mandolin and guitars, percussionist Ewan Baird, Conal McDonagh providing pipes and whistles with McKenna on guitar and piano, Breathe is their fifth album. Produced by Mike Vass, this time around it’s all original material save for an urgent reading of the Irish traditional Fanad Mare, the Donegal name for ‘The Nine Points Of Roguery’, a reel written by Fiddler Doyle of Fanad after supposedly experienced a vision of a druid while returning home from a dance party and based around the rhythm of his horse’s hooves.

Breathe opens with the balladeering title track, one of the four solo penned McKenna numbers, which, coloured by Uillean pipes, is a tenderly simple love song delivered in his distinctive, warbly vocal style. Played out on acoustic guitar, ‘Holding On’ is similarly restrained number about memories and mortality, while, (incorrectly numbered on the lyric booklet) ‘Open Road’ is a wistful reminiscence of a past relationship set to percussive puttering behind the circling guitar pattern, the last being the Irish migration-themed album closer ‘Foreign Land’ with its woodwind intro and a narrative about a fifteen-year-old becoming a man working in the mines before finally returning home.

Two numbers are co-writes with Canada’s Dave Gunning, first up being the piano-based, pipes and fiddle shaded ‘Never Seem To Leave, a song about a relationship broken by the conflicting desires of wanderlust and staying put, and the nimbly fingerpicked ‘Beyond The Day’, another song about the road and what lies ahead, more specifically after death, McDonagh proving brief pipes solo midway.

The remaining co-write is with Australian songwriter Liz Stringer, the musically atmospheric ‘Broken Houses’, yet again a number about themed around migration in the quest for a better life and memories of home.

Fingerpicked, softly sung and coloured with pipes and whistles, the final song is a cover of ‘The Molly May’, written by Canadian bluegrass/Celtic singer-songwriter J.P. Cornier (and himself a collaborator with Gunning) which, featured on his 1997 release Another Morning, fits neatly into the album’s pervasive themes as the narrator, recalls his years as master of the titular fishing boat before, too old to man the wheel, he finally watches it meets its end at the hand of an inexperienced boy from Canso.

One of Scotland’s most respected folk outfits, their name lauded from Ireland to America, they baffling remain little known this side of the border. Hopefully, Breathe will change that.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website:

‘Beyond The Day’ – live:

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:

‘Land O’ The Leal’ – live: