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.
But it's the other artists that elevate Blasta! to a worthwhile status. Fiddler Paddy Glackin joins production guru and former Bothy Band member Donal Lunny for a sparkling duet that combines the ancient heart and modern head that make Irish music so timeless. On "The Mason's Apron," Colm Murphy plays the bodhran, a hand-held Irish drum, with alacrity, while on another cut, pennywhistle all-star Mary Bergin proves equally adroit on her instrument. On the vocal side, the highlights are provided by relative newcomers Noirin Ni Riain and Aoife Ni Fhearraigh. Ni Riain joins the monks of County Limerick's Glenstal Abbey in a cleansing, devotional example of unison singing. Ni Fhearraigh, who hails from the northwest Donegal Gaeltacht, an area that has produced a number of famed women singers (including Enya), adds her voice to that number with a lushly textured Gaelic love ballad.
Though the individual parts are fine, Blasta!'s mix as a whole doesn't hold together particularly well, despite the CD insert's claim that the songs were "especially chosen to represent the range and beauty of the Irish music tradition." That tradition is simply too much to handle in one bite, especially when restricted to the output of one label. Still, there's enough here to whet the average appetite. (***)
By contrast, the Blue Plate Music label's Celtic Music: Live from Mountain Stage doesn't even pretend to be anything other than what it is: a mix of tunes that were broadcast as part of Mountain Stage, a weekly public radio program emanating from Charleston, West Virginia (not picked up locally, alas) that has been serving up an eclectic selection of folk and roots music for almost a decade. Applying a liberal definition to the Celtic moniker, this disc tosses everything into a jumble. Emma Christian accompanies herself on harp for a soft, traditional Gaelic song, and is then followed by a blast from Black 47, a rough-hewn Irish-American folk-rock band that reeks of the Pogues. A plaintive Luka Bloom sings moonily of "Dreams in America," while the Tannahill Weavers tackle a traditional song in typical full-throttle fashion. The acoustic tones of Altan and Andy Irvine contrast with the motorized originals of songstress Eleanor McEvoy and the Oyster Band.
Live from Mountain Stage certainly tests the tolerance of narrow-cast taste buds, but it may whet a few new ones in the process. Unfortunately, at only 11 entries and less than 45 minutes, the experience will be as short-lived as a pint of draft Guinness. It may be that Mountain Stage has only hosted 11 artists that could be vaguely construed as Celtic, but even so, would it have been too much to ask for the label to tack on an encore or two? (***)
On the other hand, it would have been a lot to ask of a label to assemble a Celtic disc that includes 37 tracks and a 64-page, full-color booklet with biographies and other pithy details. But that's exactly what Ellipsis Arts has done on Celtic Mouth Music, a remarkable collection of Gaelic scat by an even more remarkable collection of singers. Known variously as diddling, lilting, jigging, peurt-a-beul, kan ha diskan or some other poetic name (depending on where in the Gaelic world you are), mouth music has evolved over the centuries to a highly refined -- and highly funky -- art form. Its primary goal, however, has never changed: to provide dance music when no instruments are available.
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Switching between archival and contemporary recordings, some with bare-bones percussion accompaniment, Celtic Mouth Music manages to keep the pace quick enough to avoid cognitive dissonance -- though very little, if anything, on this disc will be familiar to most listeners. Generic it ain't, and when listening to Mouth Music an open mind (as well as accepting ears) is of the essence. Still, few releases explore so thoroughly the absolute power of the human voice. Mouth Music's well-researched history and great booklet design and photos alone justify the price of admission. (**** 1/2)
The CDs mentioned above cover a lot of ground, but even so, they merely skim the surface of what's out there, all of it readily available to those willing to seek it out. And you can expect plenty more where that came from, since a wealth of old material is still stowed away in independent-label vaults just waiting to be dusted off and reissued. With a vital modern Celtic music scene of global proportions taking shape, labels should continue to churn out a full range of styles and sounds -- so long as economics allow them to do so.
-- Bob Burtman
***** Pint of Guinness
**** More black than tan
*** Fine draft ale
** Watney's Red Barrel
* Bud Light