I’m fortunate in that I get to hear albums of Gaelic song that I wouldn’t otherwise know about – it’s not a major topic of conversation here in Hampshire – but rarely one as splendidly varied as Gràs, or Grace to render its title into Béarla.
This is an album that has everything from puirt à beul with silly titles like ‘Big Wellies On My Little Feet’ through love songs, a waulking song and a very old Runrig cover (‘Tillidh Mi’) to the beautiful setting of an old Gaelic prayer that is the title track. Maírí is joined on vocals by Karen Matheson and Paul McCallum and the trio of Hamish Napier, Aaron Jones and James Mackintosh. The traditional is mostly unaccompanied and the band does enough to update it without overwhelming the essential spirit. A very special track is ‘Meórachadh’ which begins with an archive recording of Maírí’s great uncle, Angus John MacMillan, before Maírí and the band join in to swell and enhance the sound. I find it hard to think of 1972 as “archive” but it is over forty years old!
Gràs is a beautiful, spiritual album leavened with fun songs like ‘Fealla Dhà’ to ensure you don’t drift off completely into a contented reverie. It really is splendid.
A taster of the album launch at Celtic Connections 2015:
A rising star on the Scottish folk scene, the erstwhile Young Traditional Musician of the Year finalist made quite an impression with his 2012 debut and, expanding his sound to take in lush orchestral arrangements this follow-up should more than consolidate his standing as well as expand his audience.
In addition to the swathes of strings on ‘Deep Blue Sea’, courtesy of cellist Gillian De Groote and viola player Fiona Robertson from the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and an arrangement by film composer Craig Armstrong, the most obvious difference (aside from the Glasgow based multi-instrumentalist now sporting beard and moustache) is that there are no traditional songs here at all. Indeed, all of the material is penned by Ogilvy (two as co-writes with fellow rising star Siobhan Wilson) and, with the possible exception of ‘My Heart Aches’ with its tribal rhythm and delivery style, none sound remotely traditional. Indeed, ‘Left Over Shells’, which features Rosyln Potter on backing vocals, blossoms into soaring folk pop with former Blazin’ Fiddles member Kristan Harvey on violin while, both featuring vocals from Capercaillie’s Karen Matheson, the slow sway waltzing ‘Clasping Sea’ hints at 60s dramatic pop balladry and the title track with its shimmering guitar opening and stadium-muscle arrangement conjures Snow Patrol or early Coldplay.
Elsewhere, ‘Rest And Be Thankful’ is a more restrained, sunrays sparkling fingerpicked acoustic number while the female vocal drone intro and a tap dripping casio backdrop (courtesy of Admiral Fallow’s Louis Abbott, who also produced and played drums) brings an experimental flavour to Wilson co-write ‘Bottle of Wine’ before, mid-way in, it takes off into the rafters on violin wings and a swirl of melody and textured instrumentation that captures a giddy euphoria while Wilson features prominently, taking solo vocal over acoustic guitar and shimmering moog on the first 90 odd seconds of her other co-credit, ‘She’s Leaving’.
With its fairground waltzer guitar intro and rich, heady violin and piano climax, ‘Aloft The Trees’ brings the album to an all too soon close, though on the plus side is that you don’t have to wait too long to play it again. And you’ll certainly want to.