Archive for 150 Words category

Celtic Trad Delights - A Grab Bag of Reviews

It's hard to keep up with the Celtic music worlds here in the United States. Seems the market has shrunk so much that many bands aren't even releasing or selling their albums over here. But I'm lucky enough to be on some mailing lists, so here are some sweet delights that have floated over to my mailbox, all of which are perfect for early Xmas shopping, I might add! Enjoy!

Nuala Kennedy. Noble Stranger.
Compass Records. 2012.

I've been hearing Irish flute player and singer Nuala Kennedy's name around for years, but this is the first time I've really sat down with one of her albums. I can't speak for her previous albums, but with Noble Stranger, Kennedy is plowing a most interesting new row of Irish trad music. She incorporates some very light indie touches (like Postal Service-esque blips and bloops), but the album is really focused on her beautiful voice and her swift flute playing. She covers plenty of traditional material, including old-fashioned classics like "The Banks of the Roses" and the really beautiful "Matt Hyland," but it's her original songs that push her music into interesting territory. Opening song "Gabriel Sings" is a real revelation for me, bringing in some tight songwriting with a fun, well-crafted melody and arrangement. Overall, this album balances well with itself, devoting time to newly composed tune, old ballads, and fun new songs from Kennedy's own pen. It's eminently accessible Irish trad, and Kennedy seems to be having quite the time searching for new horizons and new friends.

Nuala Kennedy: Gabriel Sings


  the olllam. self-titled.
Compass Records. 2012.

I'm usually incredibly averse to albums that mix Irish trad and jazz, but the olllam is one of the rare exceptions that manages to have something new to say in both genres. It's not really jazz, per se, or at least the unaccessible modern jazz that can alienate listeners. What the olllam is really doing here is fracturing Irish tunes into kickass riffs, mostly on Irish whistle, then mixing in hard drum beats, guitar that alternates between sad wistful acoustics and some serious shredding, and bubbling Rhodes atmospherics. The album drips cool, and it's a really really listenable album. Uilleann piper and whistler John McSherry seems to have an endless array of fascinating projects (we wrote about his album with At First Light HERE), so it wasn't a surprise to see him leading this. The other two artists are Irish by way of Detroit, and are Tyler Duncan on pipes, whistle, guitar and Rhodes, and Michael Shimmin on drums and percussion. Don't go into this album looking for some cerebral blend of jazz and trad, it's really just an album of three powerhouse musicians having fun breaking and rebuilding the Irish traditions into pleasing sounds. To my ears, it sounds like the next progression from Lunasa. Where Lunasa created the smooth, polished sound of Irish trad-jazz, these guys are bringing in a sweet edge from the guitar and drums. Great album, I recommend this highly for listening. Try the first track, "The Belll", it is absolutely irresistible.


the olllam. the folly of wisdom.



Calum Stewart & Lauren MacColl. Wooden Flute & Fiddle.
Make Believe Records. 2012.

It's not too often that I get an album of all Scottish fiddle tunes, so this new album from wooden flute player Calum Stewart and fiddler Lauren MacColl is a very nice treat. Their instruments mesh beautifully, and there's something deeply satisfying about this kind of hand-made traditional music made on old wooden instruments. I've always held Scottish fiddling to be either too virtuosic and flashy, or too formalized, but the tunes on this album sound really alive and vibrant. There's no J. Scott Skinner arpeggiated strathspeys here, and there are some tunes that hardly sound Scottish at all, like the beautiful slow tune "Tomnahurich." Maybe that's because both players are from deep in the Highlands, and are connected more to the true Scots Gaelic roots of this music than the more urban forms of trad in Scotland. Or maybe it has something to do with their ties to Irish and Breton trad as well, since some of the tunes and ideas from these traditions seemed to have seeped in. Whatever the case, this is a gem of an album, full of fresh-sounding tunes and thoughtful musicianship.

Calum Stewart & Lauren MacColl: Rise Ye Lazy Fellow


Nicolas Pellerin et les Grands Hurleurs. Petit grain d'or.
Tempête Disques. 2011.

Québec may be one of the most artistically inclined provinces of Canada, but it's still hard to get this music over here in the US, and by virtue of the language barrier, it can be a bit hard at times to connect with the music. Happily, young traditional musician Nicolas Pellerin et Les Grands Hurleurs has us covered on both counts. His new album, Petit grain d'or, is available as an mp3 download on Amazon, and it's one of the most accessible Québécois roots albums we've heard in a while. While we here at Hearth Music are huge Québécois folk music nerds and are happy to listen to scratchy archival recordings for hours, Nicolas Pellerin's blend of chamber string music with drop-dead gorgeous French vocals means that anyone will enjoy this album on first listen. Particular standouts include the title track, a clever restructuring of an old children's lullaby into an eerie adult tale, the opening track, "Tregate," a Breton traditional song given a tight string-fueled groove, and the West African influenced sounds of "De Fil en Chanson," inspired by a  collaboration between Nicolas and bandmate Simon LePage with Malian masters Amadou et Mariam in Edmonton one year. Overall, this album pushes Québécois traditional music in interesting new directions and succeeds in showcasing the beautiful vocals of Nicolas Pellerin.

Nicolas Pellerin et les Grands Hurleurs: Petit grain d'or


The Paul McKenna Band. Stem the Tide.
Mad River Records. 2011.

I may be a bit biased here, since I worked as a publicist for the Paul McKenna Band's first tour through the Pacific Northwest, but I liked his music so much that I feel fine writing up a quick review of his newest album, Stem the Tide. Honestly, this album's got it all: fine songs, both original and modern; a killer band of instrumentalists with great taste in tunes; tasteful arrangements; and most of all, Paul's captivating voice. His thick Scottish accents shines through, bringing a gruff lilting quality to the songs, but the key is really his charismatic passion for the song. In any kind of traditional singing, I wonder if there isn't some kind of usual distance between the singer and the song. A kind of drawing back from the heart of the song's message in order to better convey the ornaments, or the trappings of authenticity of a traditional singer. Not so with Paul McKenna, he commits to every song and he sings them hard. The bitter politics of Scottish songwriter Lionel McClelland's song "Silent Majority" is brought to a fever pitch with McKenna at the helm, fairly spitting the words out in his rage, but never sacrificing the beautiful melody of the song. It's no small feat to maintain a high level of both musicianship and ferocity at the same time, in fact this balancing act is the sign of a true artist. McKenna's got it, and this intense charisma elevates the whole band. But it's not all raging vocals here, and McKenna turns in some deftly beautiful slower songs, without losing any of his vocal focus, as for example "The Lambs on the Green Hills," which I first heard from Irish band Dervish. McKenna is a huge talent to watch in Scottish and Celtic trad and this album proves it.

The Paul McKenna Band: The Lambs on the Green Hills



Shannon Heaton. The Blue Dress.
EatsRecords. 2010.

Aw jeez, how did I miss writing about this album? I think it fell into the crack between the seats of my car for about a year. I guess I don't clean my car enough. Whatever the case for my failure, this 2010 album of traditional Irish music with a modern bent is extremely worthy of wonderful reviews. Shannon Heaton is an Irish flute player based out of Boston, and on her album she brings together not only her husband's crack guitar and bouzouki work (Matt & Shannon Heaton have recorded a number of really great albums together), but other friends like harpist Maeve Gilchrist, and Irish bodhran prodigy Paddy League. It's a delicious album, perfect for repeat listenings on sunny days while swinging in a hammock, and it's eminently accessible even if you're not a huge Irish trad music nerd (like I am). It just sounds great. The tunes are perfectly arranged, Shannon's flute playing is impeccable, and each track sounds refreshingly different. This album is highly recommended.

Shannon Heaton w/Maeve Gilchrist: 44 Mill Street


Shannon Heaton: The Blue Dress


blog date 11/09/2012  | comments comments (0)

150 Words: Goat Rodeo, At First Light, Dana Falconberry, Windy Hill

I've been asked recently to write reviews for various publications and sometimes asked to limit myself to 150 words. This is not easy. It's quite hard to tell an album's story in such a small space. But it's also great practice for keeping my writing brief and readable. So I'm debuting a new blog type here: 150 Word Reviews of some of the artists we've been listening to. It's a quick way to find new music, so help us spread the word!

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris ThileThe Goat Rodeo Sessions

I may be strange, but as a fiddle nerd, it was Stuart Duncan's name that made me buy this album in Starbucks. Sure, Yo-Yo Ma's the most famous cellist in the world, and Chris Thile redefined the mandolin much like a young Bill Monroe once did, and Edgar Meyer's a bass God. We know all that. But Stuart Duncan is one of the best American roots fiddlers alive. I love him because he slips between bluegrass and old-time fiddle effortlessly, and can fiddle anything else under the sun. This album is a great listen, an essential part of the new wave of "chamber folk" music. The tunes are half-composed, half-improvised, and sound like a perfectly balanced blend between folk and classical music. Only these artists could pull it off, and it's a great sound. Don't expect covers of old folk songs, but do expect to enjoy this listening experience.




Windy Hill. Let's Go to the Fair.
2011. self-released.

I'm always on the look out for the new bluegrass music that harkens back to the classic days of the genre's formation. The sound that Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs birthed in the American South in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I'm not looking for a stale recreation, but that kind of red-hot, fire-in-the-belly picking and keening harmonies that made the old classics so perfect. Impossibly young bluegrass band Windy Hill have this in spades on their new album, Let's Go to the Fair. Their music fairly crackles with hot picking and burning fiddling, and their harmonies are deadly accurate. Somehow they manage to make the music sound entirely new without compromising the smallest smidgeon of respect for the true tradition. This isn't bluegrass handled with delicacy, it's a blazing brand of bluegrass pulled forth from the fire with cool iron tongs.

Windy Hill: I'm Leaving Town
(Two Notes: 1) They wrote this song, and 2) Good goddamn that is a hot fiddle solo opening this track!)


Windy Hill: Let



At First Light. Idir.

Though I'm a longtime fan of Irish traditional music, I've never been too familiar with the Northern Irish traditions. So I'm thankful that At First Light have been presenting their beautiful Ulster music to world audiences. On their new album, Idir, the core trio of uilleann piper/tin whistler John McSherry, fiddler Donal O'Connor and multi-instrumentalist Francis McIlduff are joined also by the beautiful singer Ciara McCrickard. If they sound a bit like Irish super-group Lunasa, that may be because McSherry was a founding member. In fact, McSherry's got to be the busiest uilleann piper around! In addition to a recent solo album and an album with Bob Brozman, he also released an EP with Bellingham, WA songwriter Robert Sarazin Blake (that we helped promote). On Idir, tunes and songs rush together like a babbling Irish brook, and you can easily imagine yourself in a Belfast pub, enjoying truly beautiful music.

At First Light: Ar Thóir na Donn


At First Light: Idir



Dana Falconberry. Though I Didn't Call It Came.
2012. Crossbill Records.

I met Dana Falconberry a few months ago when she was touring with my favorite indie-roots artist, Matt Bauer. I hadn't realized then that not only is she a respected member of the Austin, TX music scene (no small feat), but she's also got her own intriguing projects. On her new EP, Though I Didn't Call It Came, released on Crossbill Records, her music is as delicate as a deep-sea diatom. Carefully performed, beautifully arranged, this is the kind of hand-made music that's almost a family heirloom. Woven vocal harmonies, softly plucked strings, a cracked patina voice; it's beautiful and fascinating and something you'd like to keep to yourself rather than share around. At four tracks and fifteen minutes, it's a tiny vignette EP that's hopefully a preview of more to come.

Dana Falconberry: Petoskey Stone



blog date 01/19/2012  | comments comments (0)