Cassie & Maggie,
Sterling Road
(independent, 2014)

The Sweet Lowdown,
Chasing the Sun
(independent, 2014)

For reasons unknown to me, the current Canadian acoustic scene boasts a surprisingly ample contingent of groups made up of young women. What they have in common are undeniable musical gifts, vocal and instrumental. While most willingly answer to the genre designation "folk," on occasion that definition is stretched to the breaking point; in some instances, simple "pop" or "contemporary country" would do. Not, however, in the case of the two acts under review.

Cassie & Maggie MacDonald, native Nova Scotians, carry on a family music with ancestral roots in Scotland and Ireland. Cassie plays fiddle, Maggie piano and guitar. On Sterling Road they are assisted by a handful of sympathetic musicians on various stringed and percussive instruments. The 10 tracks range from old and new airs, reels, polkas and waltzes to the 17th-century ballad "Sisters" (Child #10), a traditional Gaelic song, and Ian Sinclair's "The King's Shilling."

If you don't think this is an exceptionally conceived and executed set, you and I probably don't have much to talk about. At once densely melodic and light as air, Cassie's fiddling soars and entrances as Maggie provides perfect, solid grounding. At no point do the non-vocal numbers fade into background music; there's just too much life there. When the sisters turn to songs, their harmonies warm ear and heart, nowhere more so than with their engrossing reading of Sinclair's well-known-in-British-folk-circles anti-war anthem. I place Sterling Road among the most accomplished traditional albums -- from any tradition -- I've heard in the last year.

The Sweet Lowdown consists of three women, unrelated, from Canada's other coast. Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Amanda Blied (guitar), Shanti Bremer (banjo) and Miriam Sonstenes (fiddle) fashion a sound that's broadly like oldtime Southern stringband music. It has, however, a distinctly Northern accent and a modern sensibility. Every cut but one is an original; the closer, "The Rain," is by B.C. singer-songwriter Zane Parker.

Chasing the Sun, the group's fourth release, introduces me to the band, though I'd read some of the enthusiastic notices the Lowdowns have generated over the past six years. Now I understand what the buzz is about. The members are steeped in real folk music, whose echoes sound in the arrangements and the melodies, if less so in the lyrics. The pastoral themes, however, put the listener in outdoor landscapes, where most authentic folk songs take place. (You could argue that folk is different from country in that the latter, its name aside, almost always concerns events that happen inside.) There's no purple romanticism here, though; this is a long way from John Denver. When you actually listen to what's going on, the lovely opener, "River Winding Down," is not a cozy nature scene but the city of Calgary soaked in flood waters.

Sam Howard, Adrian Dolan and Darren Nicholson join the Lowdowns to fill out the music while respecting the Lowdowns' core trio approach. The resulting instrumental tone is so rich and evocative that at moments you'd almost think the words are extraneous.

Between them, it might be said, these two oceanside Canadian outfits cover the waterfront. One entertains the happy thought that artists so overflowing with fresh notes and visions -- and at such young ages yet -- will surely return to delight us with more of the same or even better. Way up north, folk music is in splendid shape.

music review by
Jerome Clark

21 February 2015

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