Alison Krauss is a little bit Celtic and a whole lot of country/bluegrass. Reverse that formula and you have Cassie and Maggie MacDonald, whose latest CD The Willow Collection, is a prefect blend of old songs filtered through the verve and energy of Celtic music. The sisters hail from Nova Scotia, a place where there are more MacDonalds than U.S. Route 1, but whereas the latter is junk food flavored with salt and fat, the MacDonald sisters' repertoire is a thoughtful blend of tradition and just the right amount of sweetness. Their intent is to pay homage to the willow's flexibility and explore the various ways in which the Scottish tradition has been bent and twisted–from Scotland and Cape Breton to Appalachia and the Ozarks. Take the old saw, "Salley Gardens." The MacDonalds present it as a tender instrumental but it's just the soft teaser for what comes next. I first heard the "Salley Gardens Set" while working out on an elliptical machine and tried to keep up with Cassie's thumping feet and gathering pace. I couldn't. She wields a fiddle that weeps one moment and sizzles the next. The same suck-it-up pace enlivens the Appalachian standard "Hangman," and the only thing more impressive than the instrumentation–Cassie on fiddle and Maggie on guitar–is the tight vocal harmony work. Or consider the song "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme." It's been done a million times, but if you think there's nothing left to say, you're wrong. Cassie's fiddle is percussive, Maggie's guitar has grit, the vocals are emotively pained, and the mood stark. The effect is to add a note of haunted anxiety to an old ballad whose central metaphor is a warning to young women not to surrender their virginity to smooth-tongued false lovers. Every old song on this album bops and weaves: "Seileach" is a Gaelic song with a modern backswing, "Blue Willow" sashays, and "Nobleman's Wedding" could be music for a pogo stick. This album is, simply, so good that I got off the exercise machines and found a quiet space where I could just listen and marvel. Kudos also for enlisting the aid of stalwarts such as Dave Gunning, Andrew Sneddon, Kris MacFarlane, and Alex Meade.
Note" No videos are yet available for this brand new record, but check out their energy in this one from their Website.
The Outside Track is a pan-Celtic quartet* that's the non-American Cherish the Ladies. Fiddler Mairi Rankin hails from Cape Breton, flautist Teresa Horgan is from Cork, Ireland; clarsach artist Ailie Robertson is from Edinburgh, Scotland; and accordion player/lead vocalist Fiona Black is from the Scottish Highlands but lives in Ireland. Their latest collection, Light up the Dark, is surely the antidote for the murk of the shorter days that have descended upon us. The Canadian side comes through not just in Ms. Rankin's fiery fiddling, but also on song offerings such "Canadee-i-o" and "Peter's Dream." The first is a traditional English/Canadian song about a familiar theme: a young woman who accompanies her sailor boy lover to sea by disguising herself as a lad. This one has a neat twist, though. When the sailor proves untrue and places the young woman's life in danger, the captain rescues her. She promptly marries him upon reaching Canada. The second song comes from Canadian songwriter Lennie Gallant and is a musing on the death of small-time fishing and makes a nice companion piece to farming woes in "Trouble in the Fields." Ms. Black is a fine singer, a needed skill when covering songs recorded by others. "I'm Gonna Set You Free" comes from Irish writer John Spillane, but was a hit for The Black Keys;" and "Do You Love an Apple?" was a Bothy Band staple that Black has the wisdom to slow down and transform into a torchy ballad. Perhaps her greatest moxie is tackling "Get Me Through December," a song from Canadian Fred Lavery, but made famous by Alison Krauss (her second invocation for those keeping score!)
The Outside Track mixes songs with exciting instrumental sets. "Hurry Up and Wait" is a Rankin tour-de-force with bow bouncing off the strings and the tune gathering pace like a runaway locomotive. "Glorious Eh" is lighter in tone, but Horgan's flute and Black's accordion provide ever-increasing heft, piece-by-piece. Another intriguing set is "Jiggery-Polka-Ry," which is just what it implies, a mash jig/polka. Through small but steady pace changes the set transforms our mental images from individuals engaging in slow solo dance to one of couples swirling in abandonment. Smart stuff from four exceeding talented musicians. (* The band is now all-female and is currently four members, not five as the album cover suggests.)
If the name John McSherry doesn't ring immediate bells, check the credits on just about anything Irish in the past 20 years. A two-time All-Ireland champion on Uilleann pipes by the time he was 14, McSherry was a co-founder of Irish super-group Lúnasa and has performed with such luminaries as Clannad, Coolfin, The Corrs, and Sinéad O'Connor. On his new instrumental release, The Seven Suns, McSherry seeks to invoke ancient Ireland in both, as he puts it, its "mundane and mystical" aspects. That's ambitious for instruments as humble as the penny whistle or as dry and buzzy as the Uilleann pipes. If you get the CD, McSherry provides detailed notes of what inspired each piece. "The Dance of the Síog," for instance, imagines ancient supernatural beings frolicking upon fairy mounds. Do you hear this, or is it just an amazing set of slip jigs? (For the uninitiated, regular jigs are usually in 6/8 and a slip jig in 9/8.) Does it matter? If I hadn't read that "The Atlantean" pays homage to legendary remnants from the Lost Continent said to be the brains behind Northern Europe's megalith-building boom. When I first heard Séan Ó Graham's strong percussion and McSherry's accented whistle notes, my mental image was of a gristmill, so my vision was several hundred tons of stone off. No matter—it's a great tune. In like fashion, "Sunset Land" is a solid set of tunes, even if it doesn't make you think of Egypt/Ireland links, snowflakes darting in the winter air, or the unlikely origins of chess! A few of the tunes really do conjure mystery from the mists. "Carrowmore" reflects upon a County Sligo megalithic site that dates to 4000 BC and poignancy comes from the fact that we know next to nothing about its builders or inhabitants. I also enjoyed "Sunrise at Bealtáine," which is a joyous dance tune and how I imagine the ancients really would have reacted to the spring equinox rather than New Age musings on the first light. Another favorite is "The Golden Mean," a musical look at the legend that fairies often kidnapped harpers and pipers. McSherry better hope that's a myth!