I had better confess that I’m a bit of a fan of Rachel Newton. The last time I heard her perform live she demonstrated how to play harmonics on the harp and let me tell you that it isn’t easy. West is her fourth solo album, named for her grandfather who lived on the west side of Achnahaird where Rachel went with Matty Foulds to record. West is entirely solo, just voice and harp, and doesn’t encompass the high drama that marked her previous records although there is a fair measure of lost love. This is a very delicate album – I was tempted to say “fragile” but it isn’t. Rachel’s singing is gentle, certainly, but the harp accompaniments are firm. Even so, I could happily drift away to her playing.
Rachel begins with ‘Gura Muladach Sgith Mi’ adapted from the singing of Flora MacNeil of Barra and Catriona NicCharmaig and pitched fairly low in the earthier regions of her vocal range. From there she turns to a favourite of hers, Sir Walter Scott, with her setting of ‘Maid Of Neidpath’, turning it into a traditional ballad in everything but origin and a true story at that.
The album is punctuated by four short original harp compositions, ‘Suilven’ being the first, although I’m not sure that they are intended to mark turning points in the record. However, after ‘Suilven’, Rachel briefly leaves Scotland for ‘Once I Had A True Love’, based on the version by Peggy Seeger, although the song can be English, Scottish or Appalachian. She isn’t away long, though, visiting Tiree for ‘Hi Horo’s Na Horo Elle’ and following that with ‘Skye Air’, a gorgeous harp solo. ‘For Love’ is usually preceded by “Died” but this is a version I hadn’t heard before.
Rachel takes us to Arkansas for ‘A Token’ which is bookended by two more punctuation marks, ‘Stac Pollaidh’ and ‘Beinn An Eoin’. It’s another song of a dying lover and I’m sure that better minds than mine can trace its antecedents before it arrived in the Ozarks. There is another Gaelic song, one more short instrumental and Rachel finally gets to indulge her love of country music again. The first time I heard ‘Jolene’ sung in three part harmony I found it amusing and Rachel’s harp arrangement takes it off somewhere else. It makes a jolly encore to her live set so I suppose it’s placed appropriately here. But… perhaps someone should translate it into Gaelic!
Artist’s website: http://www.rachelnewtonmusic.com/
The full band version of ‘Jolene’ live: