The harp is perhaps the most stately of all acoustic instruments and those who play it generally play to type. The cover of Catriona McKay’s latest effort suggests that she never got the memo about being dignified. She’s posed as a naked shellfish sporting a strategically placed strip of yellow gauze, a wry smile, and a harp springing from her head. She definitely spent time in her brain contemplating how to free her instrument from the parlor. It helps that she has a new harp with unorthodox tunings explored on the opening three tracks. “Starfish” opens with a West Africa-meets-Scotland riff before lapsing into a light jazz arrangement in which McKay cascades across the strings to themes laid down by a full band. At times it’s as if she’s crossed the harp with a kora. “Forest Baby” is a gorgeous melody, but one whose outward calm is immersed in contemplative tension framed by bass and soulful fiddle. “Greenman” is a minimalist experiment that Philip Glass might have written for harp. There are plenty of tunes to hearten those who prefer a more sedate approach—beauties such as “Swan LK243” and “Sand Dollar” stand out—but overall McKay challenges us to toss our preconceptions and hear the harp in a new way.
Watch McKay go from pretty to funky in a set with fiddler Chris Stout.