What’s hot – and what’s not – in today’s Celtic music scene!
Love is Dead
Those who know me know that I am a sucker for good, poppy hooks in any musical genre. I had an eargasm with Love is Dead, the third offering from Scottish synth-pop band Chvrches (pronounced Churches). Written and recorded over 14 months, and featuring the genius of Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and Matt Beringer of The National, these 13 songs take the Glasgow-based trio’s surreal style and sound to the next level. Powered by the first single, Get Out, the new work is less ethereal and abstract than previous efforts, while still highlighting the band’s experimental edges. American producer Greg Kurstin makes the magic happen, and vocalist Lauren Mayberry may be the finest frontwoman to come out of ‘ye ould country’ since Annie Lennox.
Nova Scotia’s favourite Celt-Rockers come of age on their fifth full-length release, Limboland. From the opening salvo of Afraid of the World to the closing chords of (bonus track) Blow Winds Blow, the kick-ass quintet shows a commitment to the craft of songwriting. Perhaps inspired by the great storytelling traditions of Atlantic Canada, these 11 tracks ebb and flow like a stormy sea – by turns rocking and rollicking listeners with strong melodies and soaring harmonies. Credit goes to the band for staying true to their sonic roots – Joe Strummer, Social Distortion, Dropkick Murphys – while carving out a solid identity all their own. A guest appearance by Cassie and Maggie MacDonald is a sweet touch, further pushing the Stanfields’ vibe up and away.
The Next Chapter
Despite the forgettable album cover and title, The Next Chapter from Northern Ireland quintet Connla might very well be the best ‘trad’ recording I have heard over the last while. Upon further research, I was pleased to discover that the band – whose members hail from both Armagh and Derry, and met while studying music at the University of Ulster – have picked up an array of awards and accolades since the release of their debut EP in 2015. Deservedly so, I might add. Singer Ciara McCafferty’s lush harmonies lilt effortlessly over gentle uilleann pipes, flutes, whistles, harp, guitar, and more on this strong selection of 11 classic and contemporary compositions – further proof that Celtic culture is alive and well in the six counties.
Inspired by Alexander Moffat’s painting of the same name, this terrific 16-track collection is an homage to some of Scotland’s finest singers and songwriters, past and present, including Jeannie Robertson, Belle Stewart, Willie Scott, Aly Bain, Jimmy MacBeath, and others. The real treats here are Dolina MacLennan’s stirring take on Tha Mi Duillich, Hugh MacDiarmid’s powerful and poignant version of The Watergaw, and Flora MacNeil’s stunning rendition of A Mhic Iain Ic Sheumais. More than a mere selection of strong songs, however, the anthology does well to capture the spirit and sound of a country, while doing its bit to preserve and promote traditional Celtic culture. A great project by the good folks at Greentrax Recordings that will be enjoyed by listeners of all ages.
It has been a banner year for the Belfast bard; in 2017, the 72-year-old released Roll With the Punches, rocketing to the top of the charts. His 38th studio recording, Versatile, is sure to do the same, as the ageless crooner scoots and scats his way through 16 terrific and timeless tracks of smooth standards and old-school soul. Backed by a super show-tune band, Van the Man hits all the high notes on Broken Record, Take it Easy Baby, and I Get a Kick Out of You. Fresh takes on Bye Bye Blackbird, Makin’ Whoopee, and Unchained Melody get straight to the heart of the music, reminding listeners just how…well…versatile Morrison is as both an arranger and performer. Here’s hoping he keeps hopping and bopping.
Songs of Experience
The much delayed follow-up to 2014’s Songs of Innocence, U2’s 14th studio album comes of age with all the aches and pains of middle age. While the Irish supergroup retains its signature sound, aided by the stellar sonic workings of no less than nine producers, the band soars off into new thematic directions; at their lyrical core, Love is All We Have Left, Lights of Home, The Little Things That Give You Away, and 13 (There is a Light), bring mortality into focus, as if front-man Bono – perhaps inspired by recent, undisclosed health issues – can see the end. Thankfully, the smart-pop sensibilities of American Soul, Red Flag Day, and the first single, You’re the Best Things About Me, keep the heaviness in check.
Celtic Colours Volume 5
The world’s biggest and best Celtic music gathering takes place each October in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. For those who have yet to take in the sights and sounds of the Celtic Colours International Festival, not to worry; organizers compile stand-out tracks from the previous year’s event into musical mementos that will surely inspire you to attend down the road. Volume 5 in the annual series is simply exceptional, with outstanding sound production, and powerful performances from the likes of Còig, Dwayne Côté, Ímar, Sarah MacInnis, Talisk, Daoirí Farrell, Allan MacDonald and more. While the individual pieces succeed at showcasing the sonic diversity of Celtic music, it is the thread of common cultural customs that weave this work into another warm and welcoming musical mosaic.
Those with a penchant for purity will take pride and pleasure in this debut offering from Ottawa-based duo Hibernia. Both vocalist Ellen MacIsaac and harpist Susan Toman have rich and robust roots in all things Celtic, and the 14 traditional tunes of Wide Waters capture and convey the spirit of the living, breathing cultures of Ireland and Scotland with fine and tender melodies drifting gently over the subtle plucks of single notes. More than a collection of songs, however, the recording serves as a soundtrack, or a dreamscape, for either a soft summer’s day or a cold, shimmering winter’s eve. At the forefront of the pair’s musical philosophy is the drive and desire to preserve and promote Celtic customs. As such, very well done ladies!
The High Kings
Despite the recent parting of founding member Martin Furey, the Dublin-born band has much to celebrate with this commemorative collection of greatest hits. First and foremost, perhaps, is the sheer volume of fantastic material recorded over the past ten years, including The Rocky Road to Dublin, The Rising of the Moon, Red is the Rose, and the group’s terrific, tear-jerking take on The Parting Glass. The anthology also succeeds at showcasing the quartet’s tremendous talent for both classic and contemporary ‘trad’, and fêtes the foursome’s refreshing efforts to bring the magic and mystique of Eire’s music to new and younger generations of listeners. Even with Furey’s departure, there is surely more than enough gas left in the band’s tank for another decade of sonic success.
Out of All This Blue
It’s hit-and-miss again for Mike Scott and his merry band of musicians with Out of All This Blue, a prolific, yet inconsistent, outpouring of 34 tracks that will have you nodding your head at one turn, and scratching it the next. While some songs certainly hit the heart – perhaps inspired by the perks and perils of Scott’s recent marriage – most miss the mark, particularly when the Scot-turned-Dubliner tries too hard to remain relevant in today’s fractured musical marketplace. The result is a mixed bag of mid-life crisis musings – often experimental in sound and structure – that would perhaps have been better served up as a smaller sonic portion. Still, like Dylan, there is no denying an old artistic soul his poetic meanderings.
In the Name of Stillness
Fans of Enya and Loreena McKennitt will want to wrap their ears around harpist Áine Minogue’s latest effort In the Name of Stillness. The native of Co. Tipperary, who now resides in New England, weaves a warm tapestry of hushed – and sometimes haunting – harmonies on this terrific ten-track release. As the moniker implies, the collection – sub-titled Celtic Meditation Music – is plush with gentle and gorgeous melodies, idyllic for a summer’s day by the lake, an autumn stroll through the colourful foliage, or with a glass of wine by the fireplace during winter months. As prolific as she is profound, Minogue already has dozens of recording credits to her name, including 13 solo albums, and continues to mature as a musical artisan.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts on one of my favourite recordings of 2017, The Screaming Orphans’ first full-length release Tap Room. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the song structure, or maybe it is the musicality of the melodies, or it might just be the fun and frolic of four talented sisters from Co. Donegal connecting in a creative milieu – whatever it is, it works well. Like their sonic forbearers Clannad, traditional tones and textures are given a make-over on a number of tunes, including Follow Me Up to Carlow, Raithneach A Bhean Bheag, and The Ballad of Spring Hill. The result is testament to the ages-old adage ‘the family that plays together, stays together.’ Here’s hoping they do.
The Nesbitt Family
Devils Bit Sessions
Recorded live off the floor during a weekend seisun at the Nesbitt family’s home at the foot of Devil’s Bit Mountain in Co. Tipperary, and featuring three generations of family members and a few very special guests, Devils Bit Sessions is a raw, rollicking romp through traditional Celtic music and culture. A sonic trip through time, the 19 tracks do well to capture and convey the trials and triumphs of rural Irish life. Toes will tap and hands will clap, as Grammy Award winning violinist – and longtime member of Emerald Isle supergroup Celtic Woman – Máiréad Nesbitt leads her siblings through a series of jovial jigs, rustic reels and beautiful ballads. Those with a passion for authentic ‘trad’ won’t want to miss this one.
Fittingly, Whiskey Picnic opens with a 26-second invitation to join the Rogue Diplomats for an old-school piss up. The quirky quintet from New York and Pennsylvania – made up of emerging and established musicians and showbiz professionals – takes no prisoners and makes no excuses on their terrific 11 track debut recording, rambling through classics like Galway Hooker, Mary Mac, Old Brown Ale, and Wild Rover like there is no tomorrow. Armed with guitars, accordions, tin whistles, bouzoukis and bodhráns, the young band rips and roars with an energy and enthusiasm that is only surpassed by their vibrant vocal harmonies. Fun, festive and full of frolic, the ‘Dips are sure bets to make every day seem like St. Paddy’s Day at your local Irish pub.
Rattle The Knee
Paving & Crigging
More great ‘trad’ here, this time from Los Angeles-based trio Rattle The Knee. Patrick D’Arcy leads his latest group through their debut recording, Paving & Crigging, featuring himself on uilleann pipes, fiddler Kira Ott and guitarist Jimmy Murphy, romping through 14 traditional Celtic tunes, including Paddy’s Rambles Through the Park, Green Fields of Canada, An Buachaill Caol Dubh, and Lady on the Island. Interestingly, the entire album was recorded in the lower register of B natural, once the standard key for traditional Irish jigs, reels and ballads. Though the resulting drone makes for a meditative, zen-like listening experience, there is enough variety and voice here to keep it festive and fresh. An excellent first effort by a talented trio to keep a close eye on.
True to its title, Gaelic Stories features 14 traditional tales told by celebrated Scottish seanchaí Peter Morrison, a crofter and fisherman who lived on the small Hebridean island of Grimsay, near North Uist and Benbecula, off the country’s west coast. Originally recorded between 1962 and 1974, and first released in 1995 as an audio cassette only, the album has been re-mastered and reformatted for contemporary audiences. Even those who don’t understand a word of Scots Gaelic will enjoy Morrison’s lively lilt and brash brogue as he recounts local legend and lore. More importantly, perhaps, is that the soundtrack serves to preserve and promote a disappearing way of life. Credit both Greentrax Recordings and the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University for making the investment.
Cape Breton Celtic ubergroup Còig realize their sonic potential with their third full-length release Rove, a twelve track treasure trove that will wash over you like the sea upon Nova Scotia shores. Featuring the fiery fiddling duo of Chrissy Crowley and Rachel Davis, the playful piano of Jason Roach, and the musical musings of multi-instrumentalist Darren McMullen, Rove takes listeners back to simpler, gentler times, when Saturday night ceilidhs brought communities together to sing, dance, drink and celebrate their rustic roots. Jigs, reels, ballads – and a brilliant cover of Peter Gabriel’s Solisbury Hill – showcase both the quartet’s strong chemistry, and the region’s rich musical history. Còig are the real deal, folks, and they just might inspire you to set sail for Atlantic Canada.
Who knew that traditional Welsh folk-rock could sound so damned…sexy? I am tempted to leave the review at that, and leave the rest to readers’ imaginations. Now that I have your attention, however…Fronted by vocalist Bethan Rhiannon, who sings in both English and her native language, and featuring an all-star lineup of players, Calan absolutely kill it with their fourth studio recording, Solomon. Stellar sound production, and a few special guest appearances – including noted Welsh poet Nigel Jenkins – take these twelve terrific tunes to new heights, and make for a stirring and stunning sonic journey through Wales’ rugged and robust musical landscape. It is no wonder that critics and fans (me, on both counts) are quick with kudos for this quintessential Celtic quintet.
The Joshua Tree (Box Set)
Has it really been thirty years since Bono, The Edge, Larry and Adam broke into the big leagues with one of the greatest rock records ever made? Although this 7 LP anthology might seem a bit excessive with its abundance of live versions, studio outtakes, b-sides and rarities – not to mention a grab-bag of other goodies – it does well to capture a band at the absolute peak of its musical prowess. Nostalgia aside, and with the quartet now touring in support of the original album, it is a reminder that The Joshua Tree did more than cement U2’s status as a stadium act; it put Irish music back in the global spotlight, paving the way for countless artists to emerge from the Emerald Isle.
Hailing from the sea swept shores of Cape Breton, Glace Bay fiddler Matt Earhart goes old-school with this eleven song selection of classic Celtic melodies. From the opening notes of ‘Morrison’s Jig’ to the closing chorus of ‘The Parting Glass’, the up-and-coming Caper shines a spotlight on his Scottish/Irish roots with some fine finger-work on the frets, and equally vibrant vocals. Highlights here include a laid-back take on The Waterboys’ ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, the homegrown homage of ‘Farewell to Nova Scotia’, and a rousing rendition of ‘The Star of the County Down.’ By turns mellow and muscular, and seasoned with sprinklings of traditional jaunts, jigs and reels, this self-titled release is ideal for both Saturday night stargazing and/or lazy Sunday afternoons under the summer sun.
11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory
The boys from Beantown are back with a bang. 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory finds the fearless sextet in fine form on their 9th studio recording, as they rip-roar through almost a dozen incendiary tracks. From the lonesome opening notes of The Boatman, through the rollicking First Class Loser and the rocking guitars of I Had A Hat, to the closing chorus of Until Next Time, the crafty Celt-Punk-Rock veterans sound as vital and vibrant as they did in their Quincy, Massachusetts garage over two decades ago. This is anthemic, ass-whoopin’ music that works best at the highest possible volume – perfect for a late night piss-up with family, friends and foes at the local watering hole, waiting on a sure-fire, old-school donnybrook.
Cassie & Maggie MacDonald
The Willow Collection
Nova Scotia siblings Cassie and Maggie MacDonald hit all the right notes with The Willow Collection, an eclectic eleven song collection of classic and contemporary jigs, reels, standards and surprises. As gifted musically as they are gorgeous, the sisters strike sonic gold with Hangman, Strip the Willow Set, and Nobleman’s Wedding. The Willow Lullaby, Down in the Willow Garden and Turn Me Gentle When I’m Dying are gentler touches, drawing upon both the pair’s rural Canadian roots and their passion for fine and folksy American hooks. Many years of writing, practicing, recording and performing together have forged the dynamic duo into one of the finest Celtic music acts on this side of the Atlantic. Be sure to catch them in concert over the coming months.
Alana & Leigh Cline
Alana & Leigh Cline
Keeping with the family theme, father-daughter duo Leigh and Alana Cline team up for their first full-length, self-titled recording, and the results are sure and sonically satisfying. A melodic mélange of old-style jigs and reels, mixed with a sprinkling of softer ballads, make these ten terrific tracks ideal for all occasions; from laid-back, easy listening to an all-out Cape Breton kitchen party. Standout songs here include The Black Mill, Huntington Castle Set, Pigeon on the Gate, Drowsy Maggie Variations, and Mason’s Apron, each featuring Alana’s fine fiddling and Leigh’s limber guitar work. It is easy to understand why the Toronto-based twosome is in such high demand on the summer festival circuit; it is virtually impossible not to grin from ear-to-ear while listening to these songs
Celtic Colours Vol. 4
Every year, the fine folks at Celtic Colours International Festival send me their latest volume of live recordings from the previous year’s gathering, and each time I am reminded why it is the best annual Celtic music event in the world. Showcasing the likes of Liz Carroll, Dougie MacLean, Liz Doherty, Andrea Beaton, The Once, and many more, this thirteen-tune time capsule succeeds at capturing and conveying the soul and spirit of both the artists and their diverse musical offerings. In particular, the album’s opening track from Le Vent du Nord pays homage to the area’s indigenous roots. And the appearance of several Acadian performers well-represents the region’s Francophone influence. If you have yet to attend CCIF, then let this be your call to action.
How this recording managed to slip through my fingers last year remains a mystery; everyone knows I am a sucker for a pretty face with a prettier voice. More than a Welsh version of Enya, Kate Bush or Bjork, singer-songwriter Lisa Jen pushes her six-piece band to the brink of Celtic alt-folk with stirring, soulful vocals. Anian – the Brythonic word for nature – does well to express the spirit and soul of a hearty people, their lush landscape and their ancient language, in hushed and haunting tones. Beautiful and breathtaking, these 11 superb soundscapes caught the ear of Peter Gabriel and his Real World Records, a feather in the cap for any artist, let alone a little-known group with big things on the horizon.
Voices of Angels
Give credit where credit is due; the lovely lasses of Celtic Woman play to their strengths, and listener’s heartstrings, with this 16 song selection of classic and contemporary melodies. As always, each member of the all-girl group is afforded the opportunity to showcase their individual talents. However, the quartet is at its best when three and four part harmonies take hold – the whole being stronger than the sum of its parts. Highlights here include Mo Ghile Mear, Dulaman, and Teir Abhaile Riu, where the troupe taps into their traditional Irish roots with passion and precision. And kudos are due to the production team for allowing these Voices of Angels to soar over the roar of pipes, percussion, fiddles, whistles, harps, horns, guitars, and more.
Rant Maggie Rant
Over a year in the making, the third full-length release from this Ontario-based sextet was well worth the wait. Riddled with fiddles, recorder, accordion, bouzouki and a host of other traditional Celtic instruments, Latitude highlights the exceptional vocals of Lindsay Schindler. Aided and abetted by a great gust of guests, including renowned Canadian singers Emm Gryner and Dayna Manning, Rant Maggie Rant is making a case for themselves as one of the finest Celtic Canuck bands in the country. And, with these twelve tunes, the band successfully captures the energy of its well-reputed live show in a studio environment. Among many, standout songs include Paper Boats, Lemur’s Femur, On the Wings of a Skorie, and a stirring ode to Canada’s First Nations people, Mi’kmaq Enigma.
The Seven Suns
Belfast-born uilleann piper John McSherry revitalizes the instrument, and – to some degree – the soundtrack of Ireland’s rich heritage, with this terrific ten track offering. An established composer and arranger, whose previous release Soma was hailed by critics and music fans alike, McSherry calls upon the talents of friends Sean Óg Graham, Mike McGoldrick and Niamh Dunne to examine and express the Emerald Isle’s current home in the global musical canon. Both traditional and cutting-edge at once, the compilation captures and conveys a country at a musical crossroads, where past and present collide, perhaps forging a soundtrack for the future. Whatever the case, there is no denying McSherry’s great gift for song, giving listeners much to look forward to in the years to come.
Canadian trad-trio Nua build upon the success of their 2014 debut Bold with a solid and satisfying sophomore effort; Flow is flush with both fast flowing melodies and songs as lush as the Irish landscape. It’s amazing how far three instruments – guitar, fiddle and bodhrán – can take traditional tunes when this kind of award-winning talent is in abundance. From the opening notes of Wide Open to the closing run of YK Inn, these 12 terrific tracks will have listeners tapping their toes and, for ex-pats, wiping a tear from the eye. Highlights here include The Jacobite, Wasabi, and the pseudo-country styling of Manic Breakfast. A lock for major North American festivals, be sure to catch the band on tour in the coming months.
Walking on Cars
Everything This Way
With all the hype surrounding Walking on Cars, you’d be forgiven thinking that the Irish quintet is the second coming of U2. And while comparisons to the Dublin megastars are inevitable – anthemic melodies, uplifting choruses, poignant ballads – Walking on Cars carve out a strong sense of self with their debut recording. Vocals soar on the opener Catch Me if You Can, while guitars paint pretty on At Gunpoint and Ship Goes Down. Bass and drums drive Don’t Mind Me and Hand in Hand, but it is Sorcha Durham’s powerful piano that carries the day here, particularly on the first single Speeding Cars. Interestingly, despite their catchy pop-rock leanings, the band’s Dingle roots shine through all twelve tracks with a wee touch of trad.
Daou Don Dañs
As evidenced by both the popularity of the Festival Interceltique de Lorient and the resurgence of the Brythonic dialect, Bretagne is the Celtic hot-spot these days. That élan is ever-present on the latest effort from bombardist Steven Bodénès and piper Sylvain Hamon. With a little help from their friends (vocals, guitar, bass), the dynamic duo weave and wind their way through eleven tracks of traditional tunes from the east coast of France. Those with an ear for time-honoured jigs and reels from Scotland and the Emerald Isle will find something familiar here, as the main melody lines make it easy to connect the Celtic dots. Daou Don Dañs will remind us that, despite the geographical distance, our cultural esprit ties us together as a people.
Almost amazingly, this Celtic supergroup’s music is greater than the sum of its superstar parts. Comprised of five brilliant and established musicians, there is surprisingly little ego here as the three Irish and two Americans put it all aside to seamlessly blend haunting Celtic melodies with jazz, contemporary classical, experimental and atmospheric music to create a unique sonic hybrid. Despite the myriad of styles and sounds – or perhaps because of it – the quintet still draws a straight line through each of the eleven songs, giving listeners plenty of signposts to keep ears wide open and attention attuned. Drawing comparisons to the Waterboys, Avro Pärt and Sigur Ros, it will be quite an experience to hear how the band can stretch these tunes out in concert.
Like their male counterparts in Celtic Thunder, the ladies of Celtic Woman have become a slick and sleek hit-producing machine over the last decade. It would be too easy to criticize the quartet for being a case of style over substance. However, repeated listening of their latest recording, Destiny, is a reminder that traditional Irish music, in any form, shines with both spirit and soul. There is no denying the great vocal talent here and, thankfully, the girls never take these 15 tracks over the top, allowing both harmonies and melodies to breathe on their own, sifting their way into listener’s hearts. Arrangements and instrumentation are above average, as always, and special kudos for the cover of the Waterboys’ classic The Whole of the Moon.
Irish singer and shanachie Helena Byrne sifts through the past, both Eire’s and her own, to produce 17 terrific tracks of old-school storytelling. Tales of traditional myths from the Emerald Isle blend seamlessly with quaint yarns from her childhood home, bringing to life the people and place of a different, and perhaps better, time. Ideal for relaxing around the fireplace with family and friends, listeners of all ages – particularly young children – will enjoy classic takes on The Fairies, The Dullahan, The Hunchback of Tipperary and more. The lone musical track – My Lagan Love – showcases Byrne’s lovely lilt, and leaves one wondering why there aren’t more songs in this selection. Hopefully, it is a teaser track of things to come for this talented tale-teller.
According to Wikipedia, the melodeon is “a diatonic button accordion and a member of the free-reed aerophone family of musical instruments. It is a type of button accordion on which the melody-side keyboard contains one or more rows of buttons, with each row producing the notes of a single diatonic scale. The buttons on the bass-side keyboard are most commonly arranged in pairs, with one button of a pair sounding the fundamental of a chord and the other the corresponding major triad (or, sometimes, a minor triad).” That said, no-one plays the instrument better than Irish-American Dan Possumato, and his latest recording, Mostly Melodeon, is a fun, frolicking 16-song romp through his roots that wouldn’t sound out of place at a Cape Breton kitchen party.
Fox n Firkin
Australian Celt-Punks Fox n Firkin come out swinging on their debut recording No Vacancy. The opening salvo of Drink the Lot sets the torrid tone early, and doesn’t let up over the next nine tracks, with driving guitars, pounding drums and take-no-prisoners vocals. The title track is a detour into dub/ska, while the closing number pays homage to The Clash circa 1977. The band’s Irish roots shine through with mandolin on Days Long Gone and Too Hip. Other standout tracks here include the brilliant El Condor Pasa and the crunchy Bastard Brigade. What’s clear by album’s end is that the group has earned its stripes playing every backroom bar and pub down under, and stands as tall as Boston’s Dropkick Murphys or Kingston’s The Mahones.
Dark Sky Island
Ireland’s prolific prodigal daughter Enya Brennan returns with her tenth full-length studio recording Dark Sky Island, an 11-track mélange of moody, ethereal Celt-Pop. While the selection of sonic soundscapes is clearly a case of “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”, the Donegal native’s winning formula, much like herself, seems timeless. The album is bookended by The Humming and Diamonds on the Water, each epic, haunting and other-worldly. In between, gentle piano and strings sit like fields of green, over which Enya’s supple vocals hover like gentle Irish mist. In particular, So I Could Find My Way, I Could Never Say Goodbye and the title track will touch and tug at the heartstrings of ex-pats around the world. Hey – if it ain’t broke…
One of Scotland’s best and bestselling bands, Runrig has at long last called it a day with its fourteenth and final studio recording, The Story. A shame, as the group – which has seen almost a dozen members come and go over its four+ decades – has never sounded better than on these eleven songs. Often tender – the lead-off, title-track is particularly moving, as is the stunning Rise and Fall – the sextet isn’t afraid to toughen things up with The Years We Shared. Other standouts include Every Beating Heart and When the Beauty, which features the great guitar work of Nova Scotian Bruce Guthro. The stirring Somewhere closes the album, and the band’s stay atop the charts, with charm and grace. Bravo gentlemen!
Areas of High Traffic
Every once in a while a recording will come along that weaves and winds its way into the subconscious, softly sitting there for weeks as the mind sifts through sounds. Such is the case with Areas of High Traffic, the second solo release from singer-songwriter Damien O’Kane. The native of Coleraine, Northern Ireland hits the nail on the head like a blacksmith with these 11 songs, each remarkably crafted with simple guitar and voice. Though only 38 years of age, O’Kane finds himself both standing on the shoulders of, and keeping company with, giants of the genre like Van Morrison, Paul Brady, Luka Bloom and Damien Rice. Yes, he is that good, and this recording is an early frontrunner for Celtic album of the year.
25 Years of Irish Punk
Frontman Finny McConnell is quick to classify The Mahones as Irish Punk and not Celtic Punk. The difference is duly-noted, especially with this epic, quarter-century spanning best-of retrospective which draws heavily upon his distinct Dublin roots. It’s easy to forget what a musical powerhouse the Kingston, Ontario-based band has been since forming on St. Patrick’s Day in 1991. Re-recorded classics, including A Great Night On The Lash, Paint The Town Red, Past The Pint Of No Return and Drunken Lazy Bastard will remind listeners of the sound and fury that hallmarks both the group’s studio recordings and their fierce live shows. Hardcore fans can choose from a variety of anniversary packages also, which include bonus tracks, concert tickets, rare recordings, tee-shirts and Katie Kaboom artwork!
Celtic Colours Live
By all accounts, 2015’s Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton was a massive success, with more artists and attendees than ever before. Though a challenge to condense the size and scope of the nine-day experience, event organizers bring the sonic gathering to scale with Celtic Colours Live; Volume 3. The terrific 14-track CD is a testament to the talent and range of the performers. In particular, standout numbers from The String Sisters, Annbjorg Lien, Aiden O’Donnell and Liz Doherty emphasize the festival’s strong multinational flavor, while homegrown artists Kenneth MacKenzie, J.P. Cormier and The Barra MacNeils highlight the region’s Celtic roots. Hopefully, this superb recording will entice listeners to make the trip to this year’s CCIF, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this coming October.
The EP: Gaelic-Dance Piping From Cape Breton Island
It’s no secret Cape Breton is the heart of Celtic North America. When the first Scottish settlers arrived to the region more than 200 years ago, they brought with them the musical traditions of their homeland. Those customs continue to thrive today, due in large part to the efforts of Nova Scotia’s Gaelic College. The cultural institution is responsible for Nuallan – pipers Keith MacDonald, Kevin Dugas and Kenneth MacKenzie. Their Kickstarter-funded, debut 6-song recording does well to capture, convey and carry-on the area’s melodic history and heritage, tracing its rustic roots back hundreds of years to ‘ye’ ould country’. Accompanied by some of the province’s finest musicians, the young trio succeeds at showcasing the spirit and soul of a people, their landscape and their lineage.
The Glengarry Fiddlers
The Glengarry Fiddlers
Over 1,000 kilometers to the west of Cape Breton Island is Canada’s other Celtic heartland of eastern Ontario. There, the Glengarry Highland Games in Maxville draws tens of thousands of Celts to the region each year. Maxville is also home to The Glengarry Fiddlers, a 50 member+ ensemble led by legendary teacher Ian R. MacLeod. Their self-titled debut CD is sonic joy; from the opening notes of A Hundred Thousand Welcomes to the closing chorus of We’re a Hundred Pipers, the group weaves a warm and wonderful melodic Celtic knot with 15 traditional jigs, reels and strathspeys. MacLeod and his students offer up more than an exercise in musical academia, however; this rootsy recording shines a light on the country’s Celtic past, present and future.
Across the waters, Bretagne continues to enjoy and celebrate a Celtic cultural revival through music and dance. Both disciplines are detailed with Peverlamm’s latest musical effort Deltu. Led by multi-instrumentalist Konogan an Habask, the sonic sextet rips and roars its way through 14 classic and contemporary tunes with uilleann pipes, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, whistles, bouzouki, and more. Vocalist Elsa Corre brings traditional tales to life with passion and precision, drawing inspiration from the likes of Sinead O’Conner, Mary Jane Lamond, Bjork, and Lhasa de Sela. Though perhaps overly experimental at times – the tracks Hunvre and Ton Sioul in particular – this recording nonetheless gives listeners the chance to savour the flavour of a great Celtic nation whose cultural impact and importance, too often, gets overlooked.
Off The Floor
It’s back to basics for one of Nova Scotia’s finest fiddlers, and Creignish’s Wendy MacIsaac has never sounded better. Dear Christy sets the tone from the start; a rousing round of reels sure to get hands clappin’, feet tappin’ and thighs slappin’. Accompanied by guitar and piano, the pace picks up with Biddy From Sligo, before settling into the soulful and stirring Magificent 7. The upbeat medleys of Uist Lasses and Holy Strathspeys Pat give way to the last four tracks, all jigs and reels, and all recorded – literally – live off the floor. While the split studio/live format makes for uneven production, the raw energy and pure joy of the performances more than make up for it. Cape Breton at its very best.
Drunk, Sick and Blue
This rockin’ five-piece, Celt-Punk band from Scandinavia lists its influences as the Pogues, the Dubliners, the Ramones, Nirvana, Motörhead, Dropkick Murphys, Pissed Jeans, and Flogging Molly. And – sure enough – that is exactly what their latest effort Drunk, Sick and Blue sounds like. And which, by the way, is why this recording kicks Celtic ass from the opening notes of the title track to the closing chorus of Drunken Christmas (check out the video!) Highlights here are many, but both Galway Races and The Molly Maguires stand tall for their sheer raw punk power. A towering and terrific tour-de-force, Finnegan’s Hell will likely be blowing concert halls and clubs down over the coming year – be sure not to miss them when on tour.
Sadly, this stunning five-tune EP will likely be the swan-song for the ‘little hard-rock band that could’ from the blue-collar, mining town of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. The supersonic sextet, who have been around since 2003, have decided to call it quits after their current tour wraps in early 2015. And that’s a shame, really, as the group has never sounded tighter or more together than it does with this crowd-funded recording. Grinding guitars, booming bottom-end bass, and drop-dead driving drums are mixed and mastered with finesse on each track, laying a rock-solid foundation for the melodic, screamo-pop co-vocals of Gavin Butler and Sean Smith. Call it nu-metal, call is post-metal, The Blackout can now take their rightful place alongside Lostprophets on the Welsh rock mantel.
Songs of Innocence
Those waiting on the U2 of old will have to be patient; the Irish super-group’s evolution has shifted their perspective from telescopic to microscopic in this deeply personal, 11-track effort. Even the grandiose gesture of releasing the recording free to iTunes users last month is overshadowed here by the sonic subtleties of Every Breaking Wave, Sleep Like a Baby Tonight and Song For Someone. Sure, the trademark echo guitar and soaring vocals are there on Iris, Raised By Wolves and Cedarwood Road – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? – but the band’s decision to explore their past instead of re-inventing it was a wise one artistically. Risky, perhaps, but U2 fans are among the most brand loyal in the world and will follow.
The Hunger and the Fight (Part One)
The first component of a conceptual double-album, The Hunger and the Fight (Part One) is an ambitious musical undertaking from Canadian rockers The Mahones that chronicles both the pre-emigration struggles of the Irish people and the evolution of their culture on the Emerald Isle. The fiery four-piece band from Kingston, Ontario punches well above its weight here, producing one of the best albums of the year of any genre with a stirring selection of songs that go way beyond the group’s raucous, three-chord roots. Imagine Celt-Punk meets The Who’s Quadrophenia; complex, compelling, and content-cohesive in its centre-line that runs like a roaring river through a plush Celtic landscape. Truly, this is a masterpiece that captures the band at the very pinnacle of its creative prowess.
The Best of the Pipes of Christmas
Recorded in concert over a decade at various venues across New York City and New Jersey, this 15-song selection is sure to stir the soul this holiday season with a treasure trove of traditional Yuletide tunes and Celtic classics. From the opening solo drones of The Highland Cathedral to the fading pomp of The MacMhuirich’s March, the magic, splendour and pageantry of Christmas comes alive with a musical mélange of vocals, harp, fiddle, flute, cello, organ, accordion, guitar, and brass. But it is the pipes and drums – brash and bold – that drive the likes of Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, Amazing Grace and Scotland the Brave to new heights. Be sure to stuff this into someone’s stocking this year.
Ohio is the undisputed home of rock ‘n’ roll in North America – the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum are in Cleveland for a reason – and that influence and inspiration can be heard and felt on Homeland’s latest recording, The Show. Hailing from nearby Springfield, the Celt-Rock quintet sounds tight and terrific on Modern Man, Mud, Ghost Ship and the title track. Fiddles reel and rollick over guitars, bass, drums and mandolin on Cloud Cover and Pressed for Time, and a guest appearance by legendary piper Kevin Palm on The Climb and Leaving of Liverpool brings the band to great highland grounds. The gentle lament and gorgeous vocal harmonies of Closing Song are a fine and fitting finale to this excellent, engaging effort.
Byrne and Kelly
There is a reason why this album went to #1 on Billboard’s World Music charts; Neil Byrne and Ryan Kelly of Celtic Thunder make the case that they are more than just pretty faces with this cozy and quaint collection of 11 classic Irish tracks that highlight the pair’s musical and vocal prowess. Guitars, mandolin, piano and percussion bring Saints and Sinners, Captured and On Ragland Road to new places, while covers of Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl and Hothouse Flowers’ Don’t Go sound both fresh and familiar at once. The real treats here are the ballads; Beautiful Affair, No Man’s Land, The Fields of Althenry and The Water Is Wide will all bring a tear to the eye and a tug to the heartstrings.
A Thousand Curses Upon Love
From Swansboro, North Carolina, super-soprano and mega multi-instrumentalist Jennifer Licko could very well be the heir-apparent to Canada’s Loreena McKennitt and Clannad’s Maire Brennan; soaring vocals dominate her sixth full-length release, A Thousand Curses Upon Love. Plush harmonies drive the disc’s opening track, Turning Away, while The Moon Going Home, Fickle Breezes and The Sea are subtler, allowing the melodies more room to breathe. The Song of the Singing Horseman and Hard Times Come Again No More are good standard fare, and succeed at showcasing the singer’s American roots. The lovely Licko is at her very best, however, when she lets loose with the more traditional Mile Marbhphaisg Air A’ Ghaol and the rolling Siuthadaibh Bhalachaibh. Bonus points for the all too cool album title.
Little known to most, Quebec City is a cornucopia of Celtic culture, with many Irish settling across the St. Lawrence Seaway in the latter half of the 19th century. The ensuing hybrid created a lasting and fascinating musical mélange that continues to evolve. Not quite Quebecois, nor Irish, nor even Acadian, area sextet Bonhomme Setter has brought the best of each to Obia, a stirring and somber set of 10 terrific original and traditional tunes that speak to the region’s distinct and diverse past. Guitars, bass, pipes, whistles, fiddle, cello, percussion and voice all shine on Man of the House, The Blacksmith and Gloomy Sky, while Back Home in Derry combines the melodies of Gordon Lightfoot and Christy Moore with the poetry of Bobby Sands.
Nova Scotia has long been a hot-bed of Celtic fiddling, with new generations of four-stringers standing atop the shoulders of their predecessors. Twenty-something Gillian Head takes a place in those ranks with her 11-track debut recording, Spirit. From the opening salvo of Sputnikskerry to the closing chorus of Willie’s Mom in Donegal, listeners are taken on a timeless trip through Cape Breton’s rich musical heritage, and by turn, those of Scotland and Ireland. A solid and spunky selection of jigs, reels and ballads showcase her finesse on the frets – lively and loose atop a tight quartet of guitar, piano, drums and whistle. Ideal for Friday nights in the family parlour or kitchen, Spirit is sure to keep your hands clapping and your toes tapping.
There may be very little that is ‘Celtic’ about this recording, but that hasn’t stopped Paisley’s Paolo Nutini from releasing what many critics are calling the best album to ever come out of Scotland. From the opening grooves of Scream to the cutesy closing chorus of Someone Like You, the 27-year-old Scotalian singer/songwriter takes lucky listeners on a hip and happening trip from 60s-era Motown, R’n’B, gospel and soul through to cutting-edge breaks and beats. Deep bass and drums, rhythmic guitars, cool keyboards, and a shiny horn section lay down a rock-solid foundation over which Nutini soars with smooth and sexy vocals. With an abundance of style and substance, and talent to spare, Justin, Jay-Z and Kanye ain’t got a thing on this blue-eyed soulster.
Celtic Colours Live 2013
At the other end of the musical spectrum, but no less impressive, is a stirring selection of live performances from last fall’s Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton. Recorded over seven days and nights, and featuring an array of local, national and international artists, including the likes of Nathan Rogers, Kimberly Fraser and Troy MacGillivray, these fifteen foot-stompin’, tear-jerkin’ tracks succeed at showcasing a variety of tunes and talent that is both as diverse as the area’s autumn foliage, and as warm and welcoming as the region’s residents. As with most live recordings, the energy brings out the best in these contemporary takes on classic cuts. For those who were there, amazing memories – and for those who were not, an invitation to attend.
What happens when you get a bunch of old-school Celt-Rockers together for one more kick at the can? You get Last Call, thirteen songs that sum up Black 47’s career with sonic suave and swagger. Standouts here include the rollicking Dublin Days, the rowdy St. Patrick’s Day, the ska-infused Johnny Comes a Courtin’, and the lovely Lament for John Kuhlman. While Larry Kirwin’s “lil’ band that could” never received the proper acclaim that they so rightly deserved as one of the genre’s founding fathers, bands like The Dropkick Murphys, The Mahones, Great Big Sea and others wouldn’t enjoy the kinds of audiences they do without Black 47. Last Call is a fun, festive and fitting way for this seminal sextet to bid a fond farewell.
For Freedom Alone
With the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn upon us, the good folks at Greentrax Recordings in Edinburgh sought fit to supply an official event soundtrack. Normally I don’t go in for these kinds of cash-grab compilations, but this one tugged at my heartstrings from the first track, and I’m not even Scottish. A moving mélange of upbeat numbers, beautiful ballads and historical narration, the collection captures and conveys the soul and spirit of the occasion. And while intended as an honourable homage to a glorious past, the eighteen selections are sure to stir the heads and hearts of a country who will be deciding its future in the coming months. For non-Scots like myself, For Freedom Alone is a sound education in history.
The Scottish Diaspora
There are over 50 million people of Scottish ancestry around the world, with most in Canada, the United States and Australia. Accordingly, this 39-song, 2-CD collection reflects those emigration patters, with an emphasis on contemporary North American artists, including strong selections from the likes of Natalie MacMaster, Alan Mills and Stan Rogers. Still, both long-time listeners and those new to the genre will enjoy this moving and melodic mélange of traditional tunes. Standout tracks include North-West Passage by The McCalmans, Indigo Blue by Robin Laing, Siobhan Miller’s River of Steel, and a stirring version of Maggie’s Pancakes by Salsa Celtica – each will be sure to bring both a twinkle and a tear to the eyes of ex-pats looking for a sweet sonic slice of home.
Emerald – Musical Gems
It is testament to Celtic Woman’s mammoth popularity that their latest recording Emerald was available for mass download via various torrent sites within hours of its release. The appeal is understandable; the Irish quartet is easy on both the eyes and ears, and weaves a winning formula of soft, flowing melodies and soaring vocal harmonies. The group’s trademark of turning a trick on traditional tunes is at play again here; Mo Ghile Mear, Dulaman and Nil Se n La will tug at heart-strings, as will Danny Boy, You Raise Me Up and the irresistible The Parting Glass. While it may be a case of plus-ca-change plus c’est la meme chose, this one adheres to the age-old adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Originally from small-town Nova Scotia, twenty-something singer/songwriter Crissi Cochrane recently relocated to Windsor, Ontario. The new proximity to Detroit has influenced her third recording; hints of soul, r ‘n’ b, bossa nova, jazz and gospel weave their way like musical threads through a foundation of folk-inspired melodies. The result is a smooth and satisfying selection of songs that solidify her status alongside fellow Canadian songstress Jill Barber. Highlights include And Still We Move, Pretty Words and the gentle touch of Nobody’s Bird, each of which showcase strong songwriting paired with authoritative arrangement and accompaniment. Little Sway is an excellent effort by an emerging artist with a very bright future, and a perfect fit for a soiree of whisky-sours or a late night Bailey’s over ice.
The Tall Islands
Listeners looking to spice-up their playlist palate will love this one; a unique hybrid of Latin and traditional Celtic music, The Tall Islands is the 6th release from Scottish-South American dancehall divas Salsa Celtica. The customs-crossing collective gets down and dirty with twelve terrific tunes that will have hips swayin’ and shoulders shakin’ from the opening salvo to the closing chorus. Tracks like Primavera, Descagra Gaelicia, and An Danns Elegua caress the soul, while the sexy Rumba Del Mar and Yo Me Voy II bring the body-heat. More than a collection of up-tempo numbers, however, this is a powerful example of the contemporary Celtic Diaspora, where collisions in culture leave a wake of musical possibilities; seventeen musicians from five countries make for one rollicking recording.
The High Kings
Friends For Life
Like architecture, songwriting is both an art and science where unique elements are molded into a standing structure. With Friends For Life, the fourth release from Dublin’s The High Kings, all of the pieces are in place; strong arrangements and production lay a solid foundation upon which the instrumentation – guitars, banjo, accordion, fiddle, tin whistle and percussion – splash colour and flavor. Soaring vocal harmonies are sprinkled atop all twelve tracks, bringing style and soul to each construct of chords. That deus ex machina, a true Irish trait, means the young quartet’s music – by turns tender and tough – is more than the sum of its parts. And, like the songs of Mumford & Sons, The Dubliners and The Waterboys, it is built to last.
Glasgow-based ‘post-rock’ quintet Mogwai enjoys great critical and popular acclaim across Europe and elsewhere, though success has largely eluded them in North America. Perhaps the band’s atmospheric sounds are too subtle for mass-commercialized markets. The loss is ours, sadly, as Rave Tapes runs the ethereal and emotional gamut, a hypnotic – and mostly instrumental – sonic soundtrack of guitars, moog synthesizers and live percussion (no digital drum sampling here). The result is a moving mélange of music that sits somewhere between Pink Floyd and Sonic Youth, Philip Glass and Radiohead; intelligent, progressive, artsy and avant-garde. While the ‘surf & scan’ crowd might not take to Mogwai’s lengthier and complex compositions, it is unlikely that the band will adapt to market demand. And here’s hoping they never do.
For King and Country
I once asked Leonard Cohen when he knew that he had written a good song. He replied that a good song was one that could hold its own without lavish orchestration and production; one that sounded strong on only an acoustic guitar or solo piano. Nova Scotia stalwarts The Stanfields do just that on For King and Country, a stripped-down ten-song trek into Celtic terrain that showcases the band’s love for a sure and simple song. Highlights include the rollicking Whistle and a Grin, the rootsy Up the Mountain, and the Springsteen-inspired numbers A Free Country and Vermillion River. Going ‘unplugged’ is a good step for a great young band looking to expand their listening audience. Certainly, Mr. Cohen would approve of this excellent effort.
Kizzy Meriel Crawford
How this one slipped through the cracks is beyond me. The young mixed-race, Welsh speaking singer-songwriter bares her Bajan soul with a strong and spirited six song selection. Raised on trad, roots, r’n’b, reggae and soft jazz, the 17 year-old describes her sound as ‘folk-fusion’ – an apt account as Temporary Zone stands upon the shoulders of musical giants Tracy Chapman, Tuck & Patti, Cassandra Wilson and Sade, yet shines with a sure sense of self. As such, this isn’t your usual singer-songwriter fare, as Crawford seamlessly winds and weaves her way through each melody with a heartfelt, and sometimes haunting, authenticity unmatched by her peers. In an oversaturated marketplace, where a girl and her guitar are a dime-a-dozen, ‘Kizzy’ rises above the noise.
Following up on the great critical and popular acclaim of her 2009 debut recording Elemental, Cape Breton fiddler Gillian Boucher hits home with Attuned, a terrific ten-track trip through traditional and contemporary musical territory. Accompanied by guitar virtuoso Seph Peters, toes will be tappin’ with Feisty Farral O’Gara, Jigaroo and Reeling. The quieter Neil Gow’s Lament and O’er the Moor Among the Heather showcase Boucher’s subtle and supple finger-stylings, while Marnie Swanson is both plush and poised. The frolic of Gaelic Medley and Asturian Jig Set work well, harkening listeners back to a time when a fun, festive soiree meant sitting alongside friends and family in the parlour with a hot cuppa’ tea and a dram of the good stuff. An excellent and inspired effort.
Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions
Scottish nerd-pop rockers Franz Ferdinand return with their fourth full-length studio recording, their first in four years. Ringing guitars, bopping beats, cheesy keys, hearty hooks and catchy choruses abound through all of the album’s ten tracks. And that’s the problem. While songs like Right Action, Love Illumination, Bullet and Brief Encounters each hold their own, there is a staleness here – like its 2005 all over again. Even the infectious Stand on the Horizon can’t save the Glasgow quartet from sitting in the shadows of their indie peers, a pale imitation of Arcade Fire. As such, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions is a wrong step for the band, and a prompt that, to the fickle musical ear, it is no longer hip to be square.
The Bones of What You Believe
At the other end of Glasgow’s sonic spectrum, and on the cutting edge of nu-music, is Scottish synthpop trio Chvrches. Touches of Prince, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush and the Cocteau Twins pepper the band’s debut effort, by turns ethereal and energized. Outspoken and often controversial vocalist Lauren Mayberry soars like doves over an array of electronic drums and keyboards. The highlights here, among a sea of pleasant surprises, are slap-happy tracks The Mother We Share, Gun, Lungs, Strong Hand, and the uber-moody Tether and You Caught the Light. Make no mistake; The Bones of What You Believe isn’t the latest round of re-hashed 80’s re-takes – this is avant-garde pop at its finest, and the real deal for drinking, dancing or curling up on the couch.
Drowning the Shamrock
The deep South might not be the first place that comes to mind when considering Celtic music, but Birmingham, Alabama-based sextet Jasper Coal might have you thinking differently. The opening pipes of Big Jig Set, the rousing chorus of Crooked Jack and the rollicking fiddle of Jamie Raeburn highlight this ten-song effort with style and swagger. The banjo, acoustic guitars and tin whistles accentuate the positive on Gather Up the Pots, Step it Out Mary and The Foggy Dew, and the acapella Parting Glass is a fine way to ring out 2013. Interestingly, the band shows its southern roots with the faintest traces of blues, bluegrass and gospel. To that end, Drowning the Shamrock might signal a new hybrid in the ever-evolving Celtic musical canon.