Julie Fowlis a Voice for the Ages



Shoeshine Records 038

Let’s not mince words: Julie Fowlis has the most gorgeous female vocalist to emerge from Scotland since the debut of Capercaillie’s Karen Matheson. Hers is a voice that can be as fragile as Highlands’ summer, but as bold and strong as a wintery gale. Fowlis’s latest, Uam, is both a showcase for a singer’s craft and a fine ensemble album. Fowlis gives a strong lilt to the waulking song “M’fhearann saidhbhir,” then picks up her whistle to crank out foot-stomping tunes with Éamon Doorley (bouzouki), Duncan Chisholm (fiddle), Tom Doorley (flute), Tony Bryne (guitar), Ewen Vernal (bass), and Martin O’Neill (bodrán). This is a pattern followed throughout. One would be hard-pressed to pick highlights from this release as each is a treasure, but a few that standout are “Wind and Rain,” a Gaelic/English duet with Eddi Reader; “Rugadh mi ‘n teis meadhan na mara,” a Breton song of a fisherman’s daughter’s quiet sorrow; “Brògan úr agam-a-noch,” a mouth music tune in which Fowlis simulates the bagpipes; “Thig am Báta,” a voice and bodhrán song that will set your feet in motion;” and “Bothan Áirigh am Bràigh Raithneach,” a stunningly lovely song with Phil Cunningham accompanying on keyboards. There are also two superb clapping songs, a duet with Mary Smith, a milking song, and more. Uam dazzles from its opening high-energy set to its finale, an unaccompanied song backed by Smith and Alan MacDonald. Julie Fowlis proves that a pretty voice can also be muscular.

Check out this absolutely stunning (and effortless) song from Fowlis. If it doesn't make you love her, nothing will!


About That $70,000

Has Cheesehead logic taken over America?

Among the many half-truths being tossed out by Governor Cheesehead, sorry, Scott Walker of Wisconsin is the claim that state workers are overpaid. Lord knows if the number is accurate or not, but the figure of $70,000 is being bandied about as the average state worker’s salary. Because this figure is higher than the average pay in the private sector, Walker and his minions have seized upon it to “prove” that state workers are overpaid. To the average Joe and Jane this sounds right; after all, they’re not making that kind of money.

But Joe and Jane are pointing their fingers in the wrong direction. The problem isn’t that public sector salaries are too high, it’s that those in the private sector are too low, way too low. $70,000 per year translates to 1,334 pretax dollars per week. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage in the United States is just under $21 per hour, or $840 per week. So state workers are bathing in gravy, right?

Not so fast. The problem is that we’ve become accustomed to the funny math of the Ford-Carter-Reagan-Bush hyperinflation years. Who would want a weekly paycheck of just $297, which is what the average worker made back in 1970? Answer: most of us, if it came with 1970 prices. If we adjust that $297 to 2010 dollars, it comes out to $1,623 per week, or $84,396 per year. All of a sudden our gravy-boating public sector workers are falling behind, not living in the lap of luxury. As for those in the private sector, the only thing between them and Skid Row has been a combination of adding household members to the payroll and deficit spending. Women have flooded the workplace since the late 1960s. If we were to remove them and adjust the average male wage for inflation, American family income sinks to a 1932 level, the cruelest year of the Great Depression. It might even be worse since the average family carries nearly $118,000 of debt and 43% of families actually have a negative yearly income, courtesy of more than $8,000 worth of credit card spending.

How did it get so dire? Smashing labor unions is among the reasons. Union strength in the private sector is now under 12%; it used to be triple that. With no countervailing force, organized capital has looted and plundered the common treasury. Consider: In 1978 there were 450,000 millionaires in the United States; ten years later there were 1.5 million. It gets worse. There are now 7.8 million. America as a land of opportunity? Well… yes, for a very small percentage of a nation of 300 million. If trickle-down boosters were correct in their assertion that a rising tide raises all ships, the average wage in the United States should be more than $17,000 per year for those allegedly overpaid Wisconsin state workers, and more than $40,000 more for Joe and Jane.

I can’t blame the latter for feeling strapped, but they are truly the Cheesehead yokels of state legend if they think public sector unions are their enemy. Want to fix America’s budget woes, folks? How about making the pirates share their booty for a change? Raise taxes on the wealthy, close tax loopholes, end runaway capital subsidies, slap on some protective tariffs, create some real jobs, organize private sector unions, and cut your piece of the American Dream pie from the hogs with the big slices, not those whose sliver is wider than your own.

Helene Blum Will Get You Through Winter


Linden Sol

Pile House Records 0410

Denmark doesn’t get a lot of sunshine in the winter. Linden sol translates “little sun,” and this album pays homage to the fragility of the light amidst the ice-locked winter. Blum’s voice has many of the same qualities as Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh’s of Altan in that, upon first listening, it sounds so vulnerable and light we fear it might drift away. Then you listen more carefully and the power behind the quiet exterior hits you. The opening title track sounds almost funereal as Blum’s crystalline tones linger amidst plucked guitar notes and touring partner Haarald Haugaard’s fiddle drone. But Blum doesn’t leave us in despair. There’s the bouncy “Spirven Sidder Stum Bag Kvist,” with its giddy feel, the pop delight “Julevise,” and “Fine,” which comes close to being Danish string band music. Blum mixes old and new tunes, plays some impressive fiddle of her own on two of the tracks, and simply dazzles on slower songs. Her gorgeous vocal on “Decembernat” might be what Kate Rusby would do if she sang in Danish. Wish I could tell you more about the content of the lyrics, folks, but let’s just say that if you want a good laugh, try out the online Danish-to-English dictionaries. But you don’t need to know a word of Danish to appreciate Blum’s talent. Her voice brings a little sun to any season.

Check out her musical chops and then her voice on these You Tube clips.


Brongafene Griffin on Cats and Other MisdemeanorsC

BRONGAENE GRIFFIN (with Gerry O’Beirne and Kevin Burke)

Three Colours Ginger

Loftus 005

That Kevin Burke is one of the finest fiddlers to set rosin to bow isn’t exactly a stop-the-presses revelation. What does surprise about Three Colours Ginger is that his enunciation is on display more than his playing. That’s because the featured fiddler is one of his former pupils, Brongaene Griffin. This is the Portland, Oregon native’s debut album and she’s a chip off the old fiddle neck. Or perhaps I should say a claw from the Burke carpet, as Griffin has themed her album on cats--“ginger” being the variety known as “orange tabby” in North America. Burke (literally) plays second fiddle to Griffin on several tracks, but he handles all of the interlude poems and recitations between musical tracks. Anyone who has ever owned a cat understands both why the Egyptians worshiped them, and Westerners linked them to witches and demons. Appropriately, Burke spits out the word “cat” with a mix of humor, appreciation, and annoyance. In like fashion, Griffin’s tunes--culled from O’Carolan, contemporary tunesmiths, and her own pen--evoke changeable moods: regal, furtive, graceful, frantic…. A cynic might say that one or two tunes stretch the theme too thinly, but I’ve seen cat moods that emulate jaunty hornpipes, delicate waltzes, and lively jigs--some times all within a span of a trilled note. This album serves the bill on three levels: it’s great fun, it showcases the potential of an emerging talent, and it allows a master to indulge in whimsy.