Ceilidh Friends,
The Spirit of Giving
(self-released, 1997)

The husband-and-wife duos from Canada's Northwest Territories who teamed up as Ceilidh Friends in 1994 for Yellowknife Evening returned a few years later with this, a seasonal celebration which uses their vocal skills to raise excellent holiday spirits.

Since this is primarily a Christmas album, the Celtic influences are less prominent than before. But they continue to use their voices as well-tuned instruments to complement one another in the best caroling and wassailing traditions. Although ostensibly a collection of traditional Canadian Yuletide tunes, these tunes -- and these particularly versions of them -- would be welcome throughout the British Isles, too.

Although the singers, Moira Cameron and Steve Goff, and Dawn and Steve Lacey, add some traditional instrumentation to the recording, it's for accent purposes only. Never do the fiddle, guitar or other instrument get in the way of their voices.

Many of the carols are immediately recognizable, such as "The Holly and the Ivy," "Yorkshire Wassail" (a.k.a. "Here We Come a'Wassailing"), "Christmas is Coming" (Canadianized with loonies, the Canadian dollar) and "Coventry Carol." Others are less well known, including "Bread and Fishes," "Cherry Tree Carol" and "Please to See the King," as well as "The Spirit of Giving" by Dawn's brother, Norman Walker. The album begins with "Wassail Round," one of several carols which would fit easily into any traditional Dickens Christmas setting.

There are some surprises, too, like "Because All Men are Brothers," a song with modern lyrics by Tom Glazer but a familiar melody lifted from the work of J.S. Bach. A rare instrumental piece, "Winter Jazz," is Steve's contribution as a composer and features some excellent jazz guitar playing.

There is a strong sense of fun on this album, and even a bit of irreverence amid some of the more stately religious songs. For instance, in the liner notes for an absolutely gorgeous rendition of "Gaudete," the band writes: "You don't need to be a Latin scholar to appreciate this one. The lyrics, loosely translated, are celebrating Mary and the birth of Christ. We sing it because of the jazzy beat." In the notes for "The Holly and the Ivy," they point out the pre-Christian roots of the lyrics, which honor the winter solstice.

The quartet's performance of "A-Soalin'" is an incredible standout among excellent tracks, and deserves hitting the repeat button a few times. (The brief snippet of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman" near the end is brilliant.)

What makes The Spirit of Giving so spectacular are the beautiful arrangements, in some cases in round form, which put the Ceilidh Friends' elaborate harmony styles to their best use. This is a perfect album for passing a seasonal hour or two and should be welcome at any family or friendly gathering for the holidays.

[ by Tom Knapp ]