When pressed to point out my favorite new Celtic band, I aim my finger north toward Canada, specifically toward Prince Edward Island (PEI), the home base of Ten Strings and a Goat Skin (TSGS for short). The music of PEI is a pastiche in the very best sense of that term. It's sort of Scottish, faintly Acadian, kind of Quèbeçois, has hints of Irish, and throws in occasional Breton cadences, but remains distinctly itself. TSGS's newest CD, its second, is titled Après du Poêle, which delightfully translates "Around the Woodstove," a reference to it warm accessibility. The trio–Jesse Périard (guitar) and brothers Caleb (bodhrán, feet, box drum, etc.) and Rowen (fiddle, guitar, lead vocals) Gallant–have a wonderful sense of both place and pace.
What's your pleasure? Do you like a Celtic tune that chases its own tail? Check out the first half of "The Ukranian Expedition" before it breaks into a full-bore rush across the field. How about what the Quèbeçois call "crooked tunes?" The opening of "Shoot theMoon" comes off as wistful, then messes with the beats and becomes deliciously off-center and, yes, a tad spacey. Pace changes are TSGS staple, but they prefer the subtle boiled-frog approach to tempo change. "Igen" begins as a spirited fiddle-led tune that built so slowly like I conjured swifts riding air currents and deftly weaving patterns in the air. Before I was even aware it had happened, the music got faster and the patterns tighter. But instead of jumping into the Celtic version of a full-tilt boogie, TSGS backed off to a lilting bridge, set a new theme and repeated the same slow-build formula. Then there's "Lament for Buckles," the first half of which evokes a languid John Hartford float-down-the-Mississippi tune, but whose second half is a rushing Gulf of St. Lawrence tide.
Do you prefer vocals? How about some spirited French songs with tight harmonies? "Maluron Lurette" would be at home in Québec's Saguenay region. Or how about some turlutte (rhythmic nonsense fillers like di-di-dee) singing in the title track? Prefer things a bit quieter? Try "Maudit Anglais." TSGS is bilingual, though, so there are English language songs as well. Several of these are laments to loss. TSGS cover of "Coal not Dole" unfolds atop droned instrumentation that gives it the feel of an Ewan MacColl song.* And the lads get positively nostalgic on "The Town," a song that links the passing of family farms to the loss of community vitality. This superb album was produced by Leonard Podolok, who also produces Canada's folk rock sensation The Duhks. Appropriately, the two bands join force to close out the record on the quirky "Duhk Duhk Goat." Après du Poêle deserves to be at or near the top of everyone's best Celtic records of the year.
And so does Paths that Wind (Alba) by Scotland's Paul McKenna Band. McKenna has one of the most distinct voices in Celtic music, hence this record features it a bit more of it than the band's past recordings. It also highlights the band's more forceful political voice, including a superb cover of Peggy Seeger's clarion warning against fascism, "Song of Choice," which she penned in the early 1970s but seems terrifyingly relevant today. If lyrics like "Close your eyes, stop your ears/Close your moth and take it slow/Let others take the lead and you bring up the rear/And later you can say you didn't know" don't move you, you need to wake up and pay attention. The reedy-voiced McKenna takes a gentler approach on "He Fades Away," an Australian song about a young man watching his miner father slowly die from black lung disease; and he gives us a wee history lesson on "The Banks of Moy," which tells us a bit about Irish Land League leader Michael Davitt. And then there's "The Dream," McKenna's own reflections on the Freddie Gray murder in Baltimore.
None of this is to say that this is a polemical album. Other songs take up topics such as being road-weary ("Long Days") and, to prove he's not a dreary pessimistic, McKenna composed "One More Time," a veritable optimist's plea to keep plugging away. The band's musical anchor is flautist/tin whistle wizard Seán Gray, who composed and/or arranged several spirited instrumental sets. And because these guys are real pros, they know how to stack the music on a CD to vary moods. When I wrote a feature on this band for SingOut Magazine back in 2013 I ventured that it had gelled and hit its stride. That seems such an understatement now.
* Many people assume this song was written by the Watersons, but it's actually the work of Kay Sutcliffe, a Kent coal miner's wife, who wrote it in the 1980s in response to the closing of pits during Maggie Thatcher's reign of error/terror.