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.
Artists’ website: www.paulmckennaband.com
‘Beyond The Day’ – live: