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Celtic Boom

The avalanche of excellent roots-music releases over the last 12 months has been but one facet of a banner year for Celtic culture on this side of the Atlantic. The phenomenal success of the Riverdance road show starring enigmatic master stepper Michael Flatley and the blooming of Celtic music and arts festivals nationwide have likewise turned scores of white folks on to their unique cultural history.

Surprisingly, the rush to cash in on the interest in all things Celtic has produced remarkably few turkeys among the flock of CDs, especially where the compilations are concerned. Putumayo World Music's Women of the World Celtic II is one such shining example. A follow-up to the eclectic label's fine 1995 release Women of the World Celtic, Celtic II covers a good deal of international turf, traveling to such outposts of Celtdom as Newfoundland. This thoroughly modern batch of recordings also tilts toward the experimental, with world beats and electric arrangements updating the traditional numbers and bringing the originals into the 21st century. Though potential culture clashes loom throughout, they never really surface, even when Eithne Ni Uallachain backs her South Ulster ballad "Ta Se Aside from Ivers and Karen Matheson, who fronts the popular folk-rock band Capercaillie, most of the artists on Celtic II have had little exposure stateside. But all deserve attention, especially Mary Jane Lamond, who recklessly combines hip-hop, funk and traditional Gaelic singing while being backed by Celtic-grunge fiddler Ashley MacIsaac; Welsh folkie Julie Murphy and her punchy acoustic band Fernhill; and Pamela Morgan, who has now embarked on a solo career after several years with Newfoundland's groundbreaking band Figgy Duff.

Though Celtic II emphasizes vocals, the lasses still get a few chances to show off their instrumental skills. Natalie MacMaster, for example, has a command of the renowned fiddle style of Cape Breton that shouldn't surprise anyone, given that her father, Buddy, is a legend in those parts. What does jolt the senses is her updating of what until now has been a staid tradition. Under MacMaster's bow, "The Drunken Piper" becomes as universal as alcohol itself. Similarly enchanting is Cristina Crawlay of the duet band Touchwood, who wields a mean bouzouki in a Pentangle-inspired traditional number, "Sovay." And the Brooklyn-born Ivers shatters any lingering stereotypes about the inability of women musicians to burn the strings as passionately as the testosterone crew. (*** 1/2)

If Celtic II has a fault, it's that it's a bit skimpy at 12 cuts and a mere 44 1/2 minutes of music. Shanachie Entertainment's Voices of Celtic Women does better by tipping in at a healthy 15 tracks and 72 minutes of song, with nary a throwaway note. One quarter of Holding Up Half the Sky: Women's Voices from Around the World (a four-CD release available separately or in a box set), this Celtic portion is easily the equal of the others. Many of the songs have been culled from previous Shanachie releases, but that doesn't prove constricting, because while the label has expanded into African, reggae and other musical genres, its primary focus has always been Irish, and its catalog offers no shortage of great selections.

Voices gets plenty of mileage out of its retreads. Maura O'Connell's "Maggie," on which she's backed by the contemporary folk group De Dannan, previews her shift from a traditional singer to her current, poppier sound. And though Triona Ni Dhomhnaill long ago left both the Bothy Band and Ireland with her brother Michael for some expatriate adventures in Oregon, her '70s version of "The Streets of Derry," with piper Paddy Keenan providing a mournful companion to Dhomhnaill's clavinet, remains as fresh, sweet and perishable as a ripe fig. Maire Ni Bhraonain, who in recent years has drifted with her band Clannad into New Age stardom, adds an ethereal twist to the traditional Gaelic ballad "Rise Up My Love."

Though focused on established performers, Voices gives a nod to the upcoming generation of Celtic artists. American Talitha MacKenzie takes the Scottish art of puirt-a-beul (instrumental music that uses the voice as the instrument) and melds it with brash electronics and horns; her take on "Fill lu O" would probably play better in a dance hall than a folk club. Meanwhile, Karan Casey, a transplant to New York from County Waterford, shows why, in just a few years, she has managed to establish herself as a mainstay of the Big Apple's Irish scene. Cathy Jordan of the next-wave folk band Dervish contrasts some of Voices' more solemn offerings with a zippy children's song, "Little Pet."

As the Voices title implies, this collection pays little attention to the stringed side of life. Two of the tracks are a cappella, and most of the rest feature sparse instrumentation. Karen Matheson of Capercaillie, who's the only artist to appear on both Celtic II and Voices, has but a keyboard between her and the naked truth. Somehow, though, the complex and clever arrangements so favored by most modern Celtic folk bands aren't missed at all. (****)

Those intricate arrangements are, however, in evidence on Blasta!: The Irish Traditional Music Special, another Shanachie offering. Though the CD title implies some association with a television program -- or, perhaps, a live-concert-production-turned-CD -- the primary link between the tracks on Blasta! is the same as between those on Voices: They've all appeared on previous Shanachie discs. Indeed, many of the artists are the same as well: Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, Paddy Keenan, Clannad and De Dannan contribute, as do Dolores Keane and Ni Dhomhnaill's sister Maighread.

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