Rachel Hair,
The Lucky Smile
(independent, 2009)

Tasteful. Engaging. These are words that immediately spring to mind when listening to Rachel Hair's fabulous album, The Lucky Smile. One need only listen to the first track to be completely hooked. This is an artist who understands her instrument and is able to play it with such a degree of mastery that she is not locked into any genre; though her work is steeped in the traditional, it can by no means be classified as such. Hair is a powerful talent out of Scotland, and this album, her second, absolutely sparkles with her remarkable abilities and arrangements.

Featuring a strong mix of traditional pieces and original compositions, this album is not your run-of-the-mill Celtic harp album. Far from it. This is exciting music, ably arranged and performed, with heavy jazz influences it is just downright excellent.

The production of the album, handled by Angus Lyon, is tasteful, crisp and consistent. Paul Tracey's guitar work is sweet, clean and supportive without ever stepping out and demanding attention. Hair is also ably supported by Andy Sharkey on double bass and Scott MacKay on drums. MacKay's jazz background is quite obvious in his work here. It is sophisticated, and surrounds the arrangements in a way that really lifts the songs and helps them to actualize Hair's sparkling vision. On several tracks, I found myself comparing this album to the Irish band Beoga. What Beoga does for accordions -- with fresh arrangements, jazz elements and sheer virtuosity -- Rachel Hair does for harp.

It is a longstanding practice among traditional Celtic artists to tie together sets of reels or jigs. The pieces tied together into these musical diptychs and triptychs often are selected and paired with one another based on their similarity or danceability. On the traditional tracks of this album, Hair has selected pieces with an artistic authority that is fresh and at times, breathtaking. Her esoteric choices are at first blush wildly different, yet they work seamlessly and breathe new life into what can be a somewhat stale practice in the hands of a lesser artist. While her backup musicians and guest musicians are a particular treat, her masterful harp playing gets by just fine solo. Track 8 jumps out with Hair taking us solo through "The Lochaber Gathering" (a pipe march) followed by "The Graf Spree" (an Irish reel) and ending with the very strong "The Rothiemurchus Rant" (a strathspey).

Joy Dunlop's clear and pure vocals add a great deal to the two tracks on which she is featured. But the standout track for me is the brilliant original piece "Tsunami Jack." Dedicated to Hair's late uncle Jack, this piece has a long, sensitive introduction of introspection and contemplation. But then her fabulous ensemble cuts loose with a shuffle and the delightful fiddle playing of Graham McGeoch. But always at the center of every piece, is Hair's virtuoso harp playing.

This album is now a treasured part of my Celtic library, and will be in constant rotation on my iPod.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
David Connor

30 January 2010

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