Moulincairn 001

Wendy Stewart and Gary West have a long musical history. They were bandmates in the Scottish band Ceolbeg and West played various bagpipes to accompany Stewart’s gut and wire-strung harps. All of this makes Hinterlands a head-scratcher as the album is singularly devoid of synergy. Or energy for that matter. It goes wrong from the first track, a cover of Gordon Duncan’s “Full Moon Down Under.” It’s an odd composition that features deliberate atonal notes—fine for a bit of Highland pipes experimentation, but such a harsh contrast to the harp that one who didn’t know better would conclude that West wasn’t skillful enough to play the melody. I kept waiting for the pace or mood to shift dramatically, but it never did. We get shopworn tunes and songs such as “Marie Hamilton,” “The Loch Tay Boat Song,” “Ae Fond Kiss,” and “The Slave’s Lament”—each such a classic that one needs to do something unique to keep listeners’ attentions. This does not happen. What we get instead is a safe album that never peaks or dips. When it’s all said and done the adjective “competent” suggests itself. While that may be an accolade for local pub musicians we expect more from experienced professionals such as Stewart and West. Most of this album is as flat as a three-day uncapped Coke.


How many Dumbocrats can we drop from an F-22 bomber bay?

Imagine this. You’re in the market for a new car, so you do some research. You check out reliability, mileage ratings, safety tests, and cost. You test drive dozens of vehicles. Just for a lark you pop into a GM dealership and drive a Hummer H2. It’s a piece of crap that drives like a tank, produces three times more carbon dioxide than other cars, requires new tires every 20,000 miles, has lousy sight lines, and gets 8 mpg. You only drove it so you can laugh about the experience at cocktail parties. Your decision is cast; you intend to buy a good old reliable Toyota Corolla for around $16,000. It’s always among the top-rated vehicles and it gets almost 40 mpg on the highway.

You’re in the process of writing the check when your doorbell rings. Several members of Congress are standing outside and they inform you that Congress has just passed legislation requiring you to buy the $63,000 Hummer H2. “But I don’t want a Hummer,” you protest. “It doesn’t matter,” says the delegation. “Thousands of jobs in our districts depend on producing the Hummer.” You talk to your father and he vetoes the Hummer, but the Congressmen persist: “You will buy the Hummer, even if you never drive it.”

Ridiculous, right? Well that’s exactly the scenario playing out right now with the F-22 fighter jet. The Pentagon doesn’t want it, President Obama has said he’ll veto it, and defense experts say the plane’s not only too expensive, it’s unstable, unreliable, and unnecessary. The Congressional response? It doesn’t matter. Cancelling the plane would cost jobs, so they want to buy at least four more of them at $200 million a piece and it doesn’t care what the Pentagon does with them.

It gets more galling. Who are the ones proclaiming that that this is stupid? Mostly conservative Republicans. Liberal Democrats are the biggest cheerleaders for the F-22 and they’re busy rounding up votes to override their own president if he makes good with a veto threat. Didn’t we elect Democrats to end the war in Iraq, fix the economy, and enact health care reform? Call them “Dumbocrats.” They just don’t get it. Will any of us be surprised when they once again end up as the minority party?



Big Mystery
Threshold 0910

The newest CD from Dana and Susan Robinson is a homespun affair that’s what you’d get if you updated some Child Ballads, filtered them through the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina, and seasoned with amble doses of Jay and Molly Ungar, and occasional dashes of hooky pop. There are catchy old-time melodies, a cover of Lui Collins’s “Gone But Not Forgotten” that sounds even older, a bluegrass rendering of Leadbelly’s “Poor Howard,” and several gentle and sublime originals. Susan’s version of Bill Steele’s “Griselda’s Waltz,” a retelling of the Cinderella tale, is a surefire crowd-pleaser rendered in a style reminiscent of Sally Rogers. One of the many joys of this album is the imagery it evokes of places, be it the Zephyr Valley of Minnesota, the hills of North Carolina, or Scotland’s Isle of Mull. “Zephyr Wind” is as gentle as a soft breeze, the perfect frame for what begins as a love song to a hike and evolves into reflections on the lessons embedded in silence. You can envision a leisurely float down the Mississippi on “Delta Queen,” perhaps with John Hartford at the steamboat helm. And, though Vermont inspired the clever wordplay of the pop-like title track, anyone residing in a northern clime can relate to Dana’s take on the suddenness with which life unlocks after a long winter.Toss in some solid backup work from Asheville's Free Planet Radio, and you've got an unpretentious gem. --LV



The Connemara Suite
Tayberry Records 7000

I often fulminate against classical composers and musicians trying to write or perform folk suites. It raises a question: Is the very attempt quixotic, or is that those who throw themselves into the task are not competent to execute it? More the latter, I think, though the very best at it—Davy Spillane and Bill Whelan—were folk artists before they scored suites. Whelan attracted critical acclaim for his 1992 Seville Suite and then took the world by storm with Riverdance in 1997. The latter work is both beloved and excoriated, though much of the bad press is due to dancer Michael Flatley’s outsized ego, not Whelan’s composition.

Whelan’s latest venture is more modest and less showy than Riverdance. He lives in Ireland’s wild western region of Connemara, and set his pen to an attempt at capturing the rhythms of it. To do this he connected traditional players such as Michelle Mulcahy (harp) and fiddlers Zoë Conway and Fionnuala Hunt with the Irish Chamber Orchestra. The result is pieces that begin life as a concerto and end up as lilting and danceable folk tunes, though it must be said there is more of the former than the latter. The key to maximizing enjoyment of this album is to ignore its title. It cannot be said that Whelan truly inhabited Connemara in a more musical sense; frankly, some of the movements would have made just as much sense if they had been titled “Boise, Idaho.” But what Whelan has done is create a work that is interesting and appealing no matter what it’s supposed to be. And every now and then there’s just enough fire in the recital hall to make everything go jiggy.

World Connection/Four Quarters 1812

Cameroonian pop music is best known for two fast-paced dance tempos: makossa and bikutsi, which would make native son Blick Bassy an anti-pop star. Léman (“Mirror”) features sunny tones and swaying rhythms that frequently evoke the Caribbean more than Central Africa. It’s hard to pigeonhole Bassy’s music with precision, though decided bossa nova influences run throughout. It’s only the Bassa language lyrics of songs such as “Solo” that remind us we’re not in Latin America, for instance. In fact, Bassy’s musical wrapper remains bright even when singing a potentially angry song such as “Africa,” whose content indicts royal rulers for their economic and cultural theft. That said a track such as “Donalina” mashes vocals and instrumentation together in an aural paste evocative of Nick Drake. In like fashion the call-and response vocals of “Nléla,” the cascading kora notes of “Song Boum,” and the heavy bass and light treble guitar patterns of “Sébénikoro” snap us out of island dreams. Bassy’s vocals are airy and smooth. Like everything else about this album they fall through an ambiguous crack—a register somewhere between alto and tenor that is, at times, sexually indeterminate. Léman may lack enough grit and contrast for some listeners, but those who enjoy buoyant jazz will embrace Bassy as a promising new voice.--LV