At the Heart of It All
(Compass, 2013)

Katie McNally,
(independent, 2012)

The Scottish folk band Capercaillie celebrates its third decade on this new recording of traditional Hebridean and may-as-well-be trad songs and instrumentals. At the Heart of It All incidentally restores my own connection. Though I loved the band's early albums, I hadn't heard much of Capercaillie in recent years. Either this is an especially happy reacquaintance, or this is an exceptionally fine recording. Or, likely, both. No wonder it's generated such good notices.

There is, of course, Karen Matheson's lead vocals, a part of the distinctive sound Capercaillie is known for. If no one has ever complained of a shortage of superior Scottish singers, Matheson still stands high on any list. Beyond that, the band's instrumental prowess and inventiveness make for an approach not to be mistaken for any but its own. Its intensely rhythmic focus owes as much to jazz and world music as to native tradition, yet there's no question that Capercaillie's heart never strays far from home.

Only one song, band member Donald Shaw's title song (giving voice to Capercaillie's patriotic heart), is in English; the rest are in Gaelic, delivered by Matheson and backed by lovely, silky harmonies. My only complaint is the use of saxophone on two cuts. It seems superfluous on the otherwise-beautiful opening number, less so on the other cut. No matter. At the Heart will occupy an honorable place in your CD collection, and I doubt you'll tire of it soon.

Katy McNally is not as famous as Capercaillie, but then, she's just starting out, and one day, if any justice remains in this sorry world, she will be. I try hard to resist the temptation to reach for the over-employed adjective "stunning" even when that seems the most immediate and natural way to characterize the effect a recording or a piece of music has on me, so let's just say this of Flourish: It astounds and accomplishes other wonders, such as cause your blood to race, elevate your mood and enhance the quality of your life. It won't make you rich, as far as I know. Nonetheless, McNally is surely someone you will want to hear.

A young fiddler on Boston's folk scene, she's studied Scottish, New England and Cape Breton traditions both academically and informally, and she's already won a shelf's worth of awards for musical excellence. On Flourish she joins forces with comparably talented contemporaries (pianist Neil Pearlman especially shines) to call up 11 cuts' worth of old and new fiddle tunes, each one brilliantly played and deeply felt. The closer,"Da Unst Bridal March," is ... uh ... stunning.

music review by
Jerome Clark

28 December 2013

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