Trail West’s third album, From The Sea To The City finds the band contemplating the often necessary transition for islanders (Hebrideans, in this case) to big centres like Glasgow. What could have been a cue for an album of wistful nostalgia is neatly sidestepped by a band that simply does not do maudlin.
With roots firmly established in ceilidh, this band does boundless energy and big sounds. Their music contains a rich heart of danceability – toes gotta tap, after all. Deceptively, album opener, ‘Bernie’s Second Debut’ begins with calming keyboards, before quickly opening out the set into vibrantly rocking bagpipes and whistles. In a similar vein are the sparky ‘The Tayvallich Turkey’ and the vigorous jig and reel set of ‘Box And Whistle’. Only on the accordion-led ‘Mary K’s Waltz’ does the pace let up for a while.
If there’s a loose thematic link between the songs, it’s a general sense of dislocation or displacement, from the economic exile of ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’, an homage to the Irish construction worker, to the regretful Napoleonic soldier of ‘Óran An T-Saighdeir’, or ‘The Mermaid’ claiming her unfortunate sailors.
Love – won, lost and uncertain – reflects another aspect of change. The bittersweet ‘Mo Ghruaghach Dhonn’ and lamenting broadside ballad ‘Belfast Mountains’ are balanced by ‘Cast My Wish Upon The Sea’, a pacy, countryish song with a driving guitar. The slightly stalkerish narrator of ‘Take Me Home’ should back off from standing outside his lost love’s door, and take some advice from Andy M Stewart’s ‘Take Her In Your Arms’ in which dark thoughts are shrugged off in favour of learning to love well.
There are many musical moods and styles evoked across the album, showing the evolution of the band’s musical palette. Instrument prominence is smoothly and swiftly switched, giving plenty of flexibility within a cohesive whole. Expanding the band line-up has also added extra vigour and potential to their sound.
Rounding off with ‘Mo Dhùthaich’ (My Country) suggests that, however difficult it may be to leave places and people, it all helps form their essential Scottishness. The album version feels somehow both serious as well as celebratory, so it’s worth searching out a video version of it performed live. Trail West’s albums stand on their own merit, but the live experience is surely where they fully come into their own.
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