Sian’s self-titled debut album gives credence to Shakespeare’s words, “If music be the food of love, play on”. This is gossamer Gaelic music spun by Eilidh Cormack, Ceitlin Lilidh, and Ellen MacDonald, sublime singers all, as they celebrate songs by “Scottish female bards”.
A first impression: Donald Shaw produces the album with the purity of Capercaillie’s first two records, Crosswinds and Sidewaulk. No new age mystical stuff here: This is magical music, with voices that touch the Tweed, and hover with an acoustic human heart.
A second impression: In a very weird way, Sian’s music recalls the splendor of the intricate vocal harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash in songs like ‘Helplessly Hoping’ or ‘You Don’t Have To Cry’ on that first album. As CS&N biographer David Browne wrote, “Crosby would break into a small, blissful smile after a moment of harmony or and audience response. It was a small gesture, but one that communicated something all too real: hope”.
Yes, this music is a “small gesture”, and it’s all about “a moment of harmony”, and above all, it’s about “hope “. But Sian’s sound demands that the listener be in for a penny and then be in for a Robert Burns five-pound note. This is music with a Midlothian heart.
Now, with all the Gaelic spellings, my computer’s spell check system’s abundant red marks rival (the much beloved college professor) Tom Daniels as he expressed his definite distain for my essay about Dorothea Brooke, she of Middlemarch fame. But, as Shakespeare wrote, “Play on”.
That said, vocal harmonies abound: ‘A-nochd a’ Chiad Oidhche ’n Fhoghair’ sings with Capercaillie clarity, as Innes White’s guitar simply dances around the vocals. The old becomes new and again, and the new, thankfully, becomes richly old. ‘Ach a Dhòmhnaill Òig Ghaolaich’ is even more urgent and direct, but the voices still manage to quell all the troubles on the planet Earth. There are more moments of harmony: ‘Na Gamhna Geala’ is call and response euphoria, with a pulsing acoustic guitar. The acapella-voiced ‘Tha ‘n Crodh Laoigh Air Aodann Corrabheinn’ could almost be a backing track to Paul Simon’s Graceland album. And ‘Chan Eil Mi Gun Nì Air M’ Aire’ darts here and there with an urgent Led Zeppelin ‘Battle Of Evermore’ strummed guitar, with vocals that recall early Clannad.
And there are tunes that manage a quiet harbour. ‘Bha Mo Leannan Ann’ is slow and emotionally deep, with what sounds like a droning harmonium. The tune drips with simple drama. The same is true for ‘Bi Faibh On Uinneg’. A sweet guitar frames a lovely melody that recalls Renaissance gentility that was lost to the ages, but is resurrected in these grooves. This is nice stuff. Then, a simple sonic tapestry weaves more beauty. ‘An t-Seann Chladh Thall’ and ‘Teann Null, Fuirich Thall’, again, capture that contagious sound of Karen Matheson and the early Capercaillie sound. That’s high praise.
‘Thainig An Gille Dubh Raoir Don Bhaile Seo’ gets contemporary and sounds like (the very great) Nancy Griffith on a Scottish tour. A violin adds comfort to the tune. The song hums with grace.
Two other reference points: Fans of the Scottish folk female-fronted band Tannas will find a lot to love here. Ditto for the sound of The Staves. And, Sian sometimes matches the absolute vocal perfection of Finland’s Varttina.
The final songs are strange dance partners. ‘Air Fàir An Là’ darts with a trout-like wink, while the harmonies swim all over the known and unknown universe. Then, ‘Sheòl am Bàta’ wraps its vocal tones with the warmest of slow Scottish comfort.
As said, this one is in for a penny, and it’s also in for a Robert Burns five-pound note. The great (and Scottish) John Martyn once asked in song, “What happened to the dream of the fisherman?” Capercaillie covered the song and bled its beauty. And now, Sian answers the question with harmonies that still sing, with, to (again) quote David Browne, “a small gesture, but one that communicated something all too real: hope”. And, perhaps that’s the best any record album, in any language, can desire to spin. So, yeah, as Shakespeare once said, “Play on”.
Artists’ website: https://www.sian-music.com/
‘Air Fàir An Là’ – live: