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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)

HearthPR: Elizabeth Mitchell's New Album on Smithsonian Folkways

Over the course of six beautiful albums, Elizabeth Mitchell has invited listeners to join her, her husband Daniel Littleton, their daughter Storey, and other friends and relatives to become part of an extended musical family. The honesty and sincerity of this approach to music making has won her countless fans, has helped sell 100,000 albums, and has brought her to national attention via features in NPR, People Magazine, HBO, NBC’s Tonight Show; her music was even featured in an episode of Futurama! Mitchell’s success is all the more impressive when you listen to the close intimacy of her new album, Blue Clouds, which sees her breathing contemporary heart into traditional folk songs, and transforming classic rock songs by David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, The Allman Brothers, and others into folk songs. Throughout the album, her soft, gentle voice melds with the innocent vocals of her young daughter Storey, her husband’s guitarwork, and the thoughtful, subtle accompaniment of friends like indie-folk duo Mike & Ruthy (Michael Meranda and Ruthy Ungar), folk legends Jay Ungar & Molly Mason, singer Amy Helm (daughter of Levon Helm), and Mitchell’s band You Are My Flower. The album is tied together by the beautiful artwork of beloved children’s book illustrator Remy Charlip, whose “childlike joy and sophisticated wonder” turned out to be a perfect match with Elizabeth Mitchell’s music. 

Blue Clouds has been released by venerable record label Smithsonian Folkways, also home to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Ella Jenkins. Elizabeth Mitchell is one of the bestselling artists on Smithsonian Folkways’ label, and with her new album, she’ll be bringing her music to new audiences.

In the land of Blue Clouds, anything can happen.


Watch a lovely clip of home and music HERE:



Give a listen to the beautiful "Hop Up, My Ladies":



blog date 11/08/2012  | comments comments (0)

Inside the Songs: Rayna Gellert's Journey Into Memory

Rayna Gellert
is perhaps best known as the fiddler for firebrand alt-old-time band Uncle Earl, and though her old-time fiddling is truly wonderful, with her new album, Old Light: Songs from My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds, she's turning over a new leaf as a singer and songwriter. Of course, many artists have tried this before, but it's not very common for someone to nail it quite so well. Released this October on New York-based Story Sound Records, Old Light is a gem of an album, and Rayna's original songs are proof positive that she's an new talent in this crowded field. Of course, Rayna's voice should be familiar to any fan of Uncle Earl, but listening to this album, she seems to have come into her own even more as a singer. On Twitter I called her "the American Kate Rusby", and I still stick by that statement.

The songs on Old Light are split evenly between original songs from Rayna's pen and traditional songs pulled from Rayna's lifetime spent immersed in American old-time music. She learned many tunes from her dad, Dan Gellert (a renowned old-time banjo player), and more from friends on her many travels. I was curious how learning tunes for so many years and now moving to writing tunes interacted with her musical memory bank, and it turns out Rayna was curious too. Much of the album is a musing on memory and what a fragile hold it has over our lives. I'll let her tell the rest in her own words:

Hearth Music's Inside the Songs with Rayna Gellert

Rayna Gellert: "Nothing"

"I had been picking away at this album for quite a while when a friend lent me a book called The Seven Sins of Memory (by Daniel Schacter). It's about how and why our memories are inaccurate, and the trouble this can cause. I'd been reading Musicophilia (the Oliver Sacks book about music and the brain), and I'd already written "The Platform" [the song on her album most concerned with memory] -- so this brain-related stew was swirling around for a while. This song came bubbling up out of that stew, informed by how the stuff we take for granted (our memories of our own experience) can be utterly WRONG. It's also addressing the project itself, in a way -- my friend David MacLean, who wrote the liner notes for my album (and about whom I wrote "The Platform"), referred to "Nothing" as my "mission statement". I guess it's a bit dark, since it's dwelling on how fragile and liminal it is to be alive and cognitive; but it's also saying we're all in this together, which I find very comforting."

Rayna Gellert: "The Stars"

"Being new to writing songs, it's really fun for me to find out what other people hear in songs I've written. This one has elicited all sorts of personal projections from folks, which is really touching, and makes me feel like I tapped into something. It must be a universal experience to reach a certain age and gaze back on a past that seems magical and innocent, before whatever loss or life-change or trauma came in and knocked us for a loop. When we recorded it I wanted it to sound a little drunk, but, despite the sense of disorientation in the lyrics, it's not about actual drunkenness. It's a sort of kaleidoscope of youth and music and blissed-out-ness that I'm trying desperately to make sense of through the veil of time, while simultaneously pinning so much onto a past that's gone. It is a personal song, and an exploration of one of my own "gone worlds", but one I hope other people project their own experiences onto."

Rayna Gellert: "The Fatal Flower Garden" (traditional)

"Most of the traditional songs on this album are songs that my parents sang. This one isn't -- it's one I heard on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (aka "the anthology"), which we listened to all the time when I was a tiny kid. It's performed by Nelstone's Hawaiians, and is creepy as all get-out. My vivid early-childhood imaginings of the story this song tells are burned into my brain. I pictured it all happening in our yard and our neighbor's yard (and house). My brothers and I frequently talk about how traumatized we were by some of the songs we heard as kids, but how those uncomfortable songs were the ones we wanted to hear over and over again. My goal in recording it was to evoke the melodramatic creepiness this song carries in my memory."




blog date 11/01/2012  | comments comments (0)

Guest Blog: Martha Redbone's Journey to William Blake

Martha Redbone's Journey to William Blake
Guest Blog by Zach Hudson

The amazing thing about singer-songwriter Martha Redbone’s new album, The Garden of Love, which sets to music twelve poems of English poet William Blake (1757 – 1827), is how well everything fits. It was as if the two were made for each other. Redbone herself tells of a similar feeling in an interview with NPR's Robert Seigel:

"We had his book of poetry out, and the first song that jumped off the page was ‘A Poison Tree.’ Just the title sounded so naturally Appalachian, which is where my family is from... To me, it was just almost as if the song had always existed in the words.” On The Garden of Love, Redbone draws on American folk, country, blues, bluegrass and gospel to orchestrate Blake’s poems, and her ability within these genres is incredibly varied, moving from foot-tapping melodies to lullabies to gritty laments backed by dobro.

This connection shouldn’t be too surprising. Blake drew heavily on the English folk ballad tradition, and much American folk music came from English ballads. In a way, Redbone’s album is like distant cousins meeting for the first time. They still share much in common—for instance, a love of meter and rhyme, so much so that an awkward or archaic phrasing (“does arise” instead of “arises”) for the sake of the beat or the rhyme is not only permitted, but customary. They share thematic interests: love, suffering, salvation, journeys, and music itself. There is a certain mystic weirdness, often involving metaphor, that American folk music inherited from the English ballad (I think of songs like “Wedding Dress”, “The House Carpenter”, “Wild Hog in the Woods”), and Blake shares this mystical quality. Consider “A Poison Tree”:

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I water’d it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears...
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

Although the lines of may seem foreign to the pop charts, they certainly aren’t out of place in Appalachian song. Curiously, “A Poison Tree” has been put to music by many other songwriters, such as Benjamin Britten (classical), Greg Brown (folk), Blur (rock), singer-songwriter Beth Orton and the Finnish a capella group Rajaton. In my opinion, Redbone is the only one to have really nailed it.

It often feels like Blake was writing lyrics in the first place. Alongside the fact that he entitled his most famous books “Songs of Innocence” and “Song of Experience”, his poems are written clearly in a verse structure, with even lines in multiples of four. This makes the transition much easier to folk music, but Redbone doesn’t simply take what she is given. She adapts her material to create something spectacular. For the first part of “The Garden of Love”, for example, Redbone uses two stanzas from another of Blake’s poems to round things out. The poem she chooses fits the theme and meter perfectly, and no one would think they were separate poems unless they knew beforehand.

Some lyrics fit song even better than recitation: “No, no! never can it be! / Never, never can it be!” sounds overdone when spoken, but when sung it becomes a punchy refrain. Redbone uses this ability to great effect, giving herself license to edit and reposition lines. She is faithful to the poetry, but that doesn’t mean she sticks to the plodding rhythm of a written line. If a note needs to be held for an extra beat, or if a four line stanza needs six measures to sing, she lets it happen.

This power that singers have—something poets on the page can never have—is significant. Singers can dictate the exact rhythm they want, instead of leaving it up to the natural rhythm of speech. Whereas we read a line of Blake’s like this:

Oh my children! do they cry,
Do they hear their father sigh?

Redbone can re-imagine it as this:

Oh my child- (beat, beat) -ren! do they cry (beat, beat, beat)
Do they hear their fathersigh?

The effect is wonderful. It breathes life and vitality into the line. Kyle Alden found success for a similar reason with his 2011 album Songs from Yeats’ Bee-Loud Glade, which undertook a project similar to Redbone’s with the poetry of the Irish writer W. B. Yeats (1865 – 1939).

The music can also change the feeling of a poem. “The Echoing Green” used to seem a bit trite to me. It’s a calm, pastoral poem about remembering the enjoyments of youth, but Redbone sings in a minor key, unaccompanied, and it sounds straight out of the Appalachian hills.

One aspect of American folk music that connects particularly well with Blake’s poems is religion. Redbone uses the tradition of hymns and gospel music to re-envision some of Blake’s spiritual poems. In “Hear the voice of the Bard”, the lines

…Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees,
Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

are perfect for a country gospel arrangement, and would be impossible to tell apart from this tradition. Blake was intensely spiritual. As much as he ranted against the established church, he was deeply religious and rejoiced in the compassion of Jesus and the promise of salvation. On “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day”, Redbone goes whole-hog and gets a gospel choir to back her up. I can’t help but sway and clap my hands. I wonder if Blake would have done the same. It’s hard to get a sense of what Blake would have been like in person. His works and his biographers paint him as intense, opinionated, quirky, compassionate, and reverent. He was alternately (or concurrently) a loving husband, an obsessive artist and a social reformer. If he was anything, though, Blake was into Art, and Rocking the Boat, and the Common People, so I like to think he would have appreciated Redbone’s music.

I remain amazed at how Redbone can give such a perfect slice of Americana even when introducing a foreign element to it. This album could serve as a sampler of styles within American folk music, and Redbone hits each one squarely on the head. My only regret for the album is that it does not cover even more songs. I now wonder what some of my other favorite Blake poems, like “The Tyger”, “London” or “The Chimney Sweeper”, would sound like after Redbone has worked her magic on them.

Martha Redbone Roots Project: Hear the Voice of the Bard

Martha Redbone Roots Project: A Poison Tree


Thanks to Zach Hudson for this guest blog. He was the perfect person to write this review because he reviews both roots music (for the Victory Music Review), and poetry (for his blog New Poetry Review). Zach is a teacher, author and square dance caller in Portland, Oregon. You can find his new children’s book The Banjo on Amazon.


Martha Redbone Roots Project: The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake


blog date 10/30/2012  | comments comments (0)

Smithsonian Folkways French-Canadian Music Collection

While visiting Smithsonian Folkways a few months ago, I learned that they have a large collection of Québécois and French-Canadian music albums. These are all old LPs from the 60s and 70s, but they've been digitally remastered and they're being offered now on custom-ordered CDs. Part of the mission of Smithsonian Folkways is to always have their albums in print. So their whole back catalogue is available for purchase, which is pretty amazing when you think of the international scope of this venerable record label. When you buy one of these older albums, you get a CD in a custom-printed package with the original LP art and a download of the liner notes. There are some great gems here and they're not too expensive ($16.98 for the disc, $9.99 for the download).

You can see all the French-Canadian albums available here:

Here are some gems I found:

-Alan Mills & Jean Carignan: My dad always spoke of this LP with reverent tones. He grew up listening to it in New Brunswick, and I think the sounds of this LP underpinned his love of his own musical roots. It's makes for kinda funky listening now, especially with Alan Mills' strange folk accents and songs. But I have a hunch that this album is a glimpse into the true soul of Canadian culture. You have salty Newfoundland sea chanteys, sad rain-soaked medieval ballads, mysterious Irish jigs, and creepy old stories about the devil roaming the snowy woods of Québec. Classic.

-Jean Carignan & Pete Seeger: Yep, this is a pretty cool collaboration! Seeger was a fan of Carignan, inviting him on his Rainbow Quest TV show and recording this album here with him. Seeger doesn't do too much more than shrom away on his banjo in the background, but it's still a cool album. Carignan's at the top of his game, and though he doesn't play any of his rarer tunes here, he does turn in some killer performances. A great buy for any Carignan fans. If you're not familiar with Carignan, he was perhaps the greatest fiddler of the 20th century; a music genius who learned Irish, Scottish, French-Canadian and even classical music traditions flawlessly by ear.


-Songs and Dances of Quebec: A great disc for fans of French-Canadian dance. Invaluable for the recorded square dance calls from the great caller Aldor Morin, with Jean Carignan's fiddling to boot! It's a grab-bag of cool tracks from different artist with some saucy songs, but the duo of Jean Carignan and Aldor Morin is the real draw.

"Danse Carrée" [Square Dance]: Jean Carignan, fiddle, Aldor Morin, caller

-Joseph Allard: This is a wonderful disc of 78s from the playing of Joseph Allard. Born in 1873, Allard moved back and forth between New England and Quebec, and absorbed a lot of playing tips from Irish fiddling. Carignan was a huge fan and took a lot from Allard's playing. Allard was unquestionably one of the best Québécois fiddlers of the 78 era and his repertoire is a treasure-trove of great tunes.


Joseph Allard: "Reel du Pêcheur"

-Alfred Montmarquette: This is a glorious disc of 78rpm records from the great Québécois accordionist Alfred Montmarquette. He was the template for Québec accordion and a wonderful playerof the one-row melodeons still popular today in the province. This album, and others in the series, were curated by Québécois harmonica player Gabriel Labbé and his tastes clearly run towards the waltzes, marches, and polkas that were popular in the early 1900s in Québec. Today reels are the tunes most look for, and I would have loved more reels on these. But the playing is so great that it hardly matters.

Alfred Montmarquette: "Clog de William Durette"

-Alan Mills: 
My dad had this LP in his collection when I was a kid. It's a stone-cold classic, full of all the prototypical French-Canadian folk songs. It's a bit dated now, and I personally find Alan Mills' singing a bit stilted, but there's no denying that this is the original classic album of French-Canadian folk song.


Not all the collection is great, of course. Some of the albums of songs, like the ones from Jacques Labrecque or Hélène Baillargeon, are pretty dated, but these gems here attest to some great hidden surprises in Smithsonian Folkways' collection!

blog date 10/29/2012  | comments comments (0)

HearthPR: Annie Lou's Slice of Canadiana

The Western Canadian province of British Columbia may seem like a long way from the old-timey world of the American South, but not for songwriter and roots musician Annie Lou. On her new album, Grandma’s Rules for Drinking, she taps into the homey ruggedness of the Canadian West. Presenting a charming slice of Canadiana, she maps a homescape of hard-drinking grandmas, husbands away in the wilderness, rural dancehalls, blue-collar fashions, and, of course, the deep snows and silence of a Canadian winter. Annie Lou has the spirit of an old storyteller inside her, and injects this talent straight into her songwriting. Her songs tell stories, sometimes personal, sometimes not, but stories that ring true with all of us.

Grandma’s Rules for Drinking features the songwriting, singing, and guitar/banjo work of Anne Louise Genest, who spent twenty-two years in the Yukon woods. Recorded in Toronto, the album features the prodigious old-time fiddling of John Showman (New Country Rehab), the clawhammer banjo of Kim Barlow and Frank Evans, with Max Heineman (Foggy Hogtown Boys) on upright bass. The album was produced by multiple Juno-nominee Andrew Collins of Canadian alt-stringband The Creaking Tree String Quartet. Collins brought his extensive experience of pushing the boundaries of traditional music, plus some burning mandolin playing.

Rolling fiddle and banjo tunes (“Long’s March Home,” “Days Gone By”) bump shoulders with slice-of-life story songs (“The Plaid Parade,” “Teach Me To Dance”) and homey advice from relatives (the title track!). Genest’s depth and diversity in songwriting led her straight to a Juno nomination (Canada’s equivalent of a Grammy award) in 2010; a celebratory coup for a debut album! With Grandma’s Rules for Drinking, Annie Lou is poised to capture the imagination of North American roots music fans.

Annie Lou: The Plaid Parade

The Plaid Parade by Annie Lou


Annie Lou: Winter Song

Winter Song by Annie Lou


Follow Annie Lou on Facebook: 


blog date 10/24/2012  | comments comments (0)