I’ve said it before but there is something mystical about Gaelic song. I don’t really care what the words mean but the sound is magical. From female vocalists we’ve come to expect haunting delicate vocal, often with light floaty accompaniments. On her debut album, An Nighean Sheunta (The Enchanted Girl), Katie Macfarlane turns this notion on its head with strong arrangements featuring the likes of Ross Ainslie, Signy Jakobsdottir and James Lindsay in the core band and a host of guest musicians.
The album starts gently enough with a traditional waulking song but after the first verse, Ainslie turns up the whistle and Jakobsdottir and Lindsay join in with percussion and double bass while the track ends with the sound of the sea – it is presumed that the song comes from South Uist. Next is ‘Thug Iad A Thung Thu’, a Gaelic song written by Murchadh MacPhàrlain, a simple song built on Michael Biggins’ piano and an entire string section with second vocals by Gillebride MacMillan.
On first listening I was grooving along quite happily when I was shocked to hear Katie singing in English. ‘Bonnie Banks Of Airdrie’ is a surprisingly jolly murder ballad with Biggins’ piano racing along under the narrative. There seems a part of the story missing as Bobblin’ John doesn’t get his come-uppance apart from being very, very sorry. Then Katie switches to Catalan for a traditional song of forbidden love.
Next comes the first of two ‘Puirt-À-Beul’, four songs that race along in the “last to the bar gets them in” style. Puirt traditionally replaces instruments with the voice and words that can be ribald and I like to think that originally they were made up on the spot but I could be wrong. ‘Thogail Nam Bò’ is a pibroch song from Katie’s own clan which allows a fine accompaniment by Brighde Chaimbeul on smallpipes. Next comes another waulking song featuring massed voices and a lovely accompaniment that brings the song into the 21st century followed by a lament with a pared-back accompaniment by Alistair Paterson on harmonium.
There is another Catalan song with a magnificent accompaniment and a second ‘Puirt-À-Beul’ which starts slowly but builds up to a tongue-twisting climax. Finally, we return to English with ‘Culla Bay’ a song written by Katie and her grandfather, Colin Maclean’. I say finally but there is a hidden track on An Nighean Sheunta and I really thought we’d seen the last of these. Katie has chosen a pretty version of ‘Red River Valley’ which seems a little incongruous, given that its origin is Canadian, but what do I know?
An Nighean Sheunta is a lovely record full of surprises and fine music and I enthusiastically recommend it.
Artist’s website: www.katiemacfarlane.com
‘Thogail Nam Bò’: