Robin Bullock,
Between Earth & Sky
(Maggie's Music, 1998)

Robin Bullock is an extraordinary instrumentalist and this album, subtitled "The Pulse of Celtic Music," offers undeniable proof of it. In 14 tracks, Bullock works out on cittern, 6- and 12-string and bass guitars, mandolin and fiddle, often simultaneously, which provides my only caveat concerning this CD: there's a whoooole lot of overdubbing here. In fact, on one track where Bullock plays mandolin, bass and multiple guitars and fiddles, he refers to himself in the liner notes as "the Wolf Boy Multi-track Celtic Philharmonic." There's no denying that it all sounds great, but this niggling voice inside me keeps asking how honest it is.

At any rate, Bullock complements himself beautifully, as the first track, "The Black Diamond/The Seven-Pointed Star," reveals in its tight, shifting rhythms. An old tune from Brittany, "Feunteun An Aod," adds Bobby Read, playing soprano sax, alto flute and bass clarinet. No matter how the sound is created, it's lovely and involving. "The Rakes of Clonmel/The Trip to the Cottage" recreates a pub session very nicely by adding Joannie Madden's whistle and flute and John Whelan's button accordion, while O'Carolan is given his time in the spotlight with "Sir Charles Coote/Captain Higgins" played transportingly on guitars.

The cittern takes center stage with "Stefan and Liz's Waltz." Then, for the first time, Bullock plays one guitar only on "Between Earth and Sky," whose haunting simplicity had me wishing for more straight solo work. A pair of charming reels (with more overdubbing) follows: "Oregon Ridge/Brew House Reel." And again we're treated to more solo guitar on "Rigler's March/Rex's Rambles," showing wonderfully intricate fingerwork and making us wonder why Bullock has to overdub at least six instruments on the next number, "Soldier's Return." Sure, it's pretty, but isn't piling track on track the antithesis of traditional music?

OK, I'm calmed down again by the great solo work on "Jack O' Diamonds/Merrily Kiss the Quaker," but by this time, knowing of the previous overdubbing, I begin to suspect my ears: is this one guitar or two separate tracks? I assume the former, since it says "guitar," but ah, the seeds of doubt have been planted! The set, however, is sparkling. "Johnny Don't Get Drunk/Miss Monaghan" is another symphony in comparison, with the addition of accordion and flute and whistles. It's a toe-tapping delight.

Bullock plays "Carolan's Quarrel With the Landlady" next, using several instruments. It's a calm and peaceful dispute, played with great artistry and precision. The tranquil mood continues with "Free Flight," and the album wraps up with "Tiger Baby's Lullaby," another soft, sweet tune given added depth by Mike Auldridge's sighing dobro.

OK, maybe I've come down too hard on the overdubbing. It didn't bother my wife a bit, and if I wouldn't have known, I wouldn't have cared. Besides, the Beatles did it, didn't they? And so has nearly everyone else since the days of acoustic recording. The final result is what counts, and the final result here is a beautifully crafted, skillfully played album of Celtic instrumentals that has few equals. I'll shut up now, thank you.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 20 August 2001

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