A Celebration of Twenty
(Barnaby, 2006)

Commemorating its 20th anniversary, Celtic-American group Iona's latest release is a two-CD set: the first disc, Deep Roots, is a retrospective of the group's changing sound and members, taking its 15 tracks from previous recordings; the second, New Growth, offers 11 new tracks by Iona's present members.

For those unfamiliar with Iona, as I was, A Celebration of Twenty is a comprehensive and attractively packaged introduction to their music, past and present.

It is immediately obvious that Iona is no Capercaillie or Altan clone: this is acoustic folk music, fronted by founding member Barbara Tresidder Ryan's pleasant, folksy alto. Primary instruments include Scottish pipes (played with much greater skill than your average Edinburgh busker) and bouzouki, in addition to the more common guitar, whistle, bodhran, harp and fiddle. But what makes Iona stand out is the internationality of its sources. Eschewing readily familiar Irish tunes, the group reworks tunes from Scotland, Wales, Brittany, as well as Ireland -- and even ventures into North America with music from the Appalachian region and Nova Scotia. These melodies are then combined, sometimes three or more per track, into music that is internationally Celtic, intricately rhythmic and toe-tappingly lively.

Alas, I prefer my Celtic music on the melancholy and elegant side, and while Iona offers a few such moments, the whole is not quite to my taste. Even so, both CDs of A Celebration of Twenty are solidly enjoyable. Deep Roots offers impressive bagpiping, especially on the infectiously lively "Atholl Highlanders/Kesh Jig" and "Where are You Going/Aberdulais." Although inclusive of some slower ballads like the lovely Welsh "Beth Ywr Haf I Mi/Llongau Caernarfon," the CD is overall upbeat with many tracks suitable for reeling, jigging or barndancing. A handful are purely instrumental; on the rest, Tressider sings fluently in Welsh, French, Gaelic and English, sometimes in the traditional Gaelic mouth music style, but more often like, well, an American folksinger. A few of the arrangements and vocals, such as on "Qu'avez-vous, Oui, Belle Blonde?" come across as a bit dated and affected.

New Growth smooths out some of the rough edges on Deep Roots and offers a more unified, if instrumentally less diverse, whole. Its opening track, "The Emigrant's Song/Saltash/Kelenn," is a beautifully harmonized, largely a cappella piece. The mournful lyrics, an emigrant's lament that "I'm a stranger to this country ... and they do not know my name" are particularly poignant. The unavoidably piercing sound of the bagpipe on Deep Roots has been replaced by nimble fiddling by Iona's newest member, Andrew Dodds. Overall, the tracks on New Growth sound slightly jazzier and more contemporary. One of the CD's unexpected pleasures is a musical allusion to Aaron Copland's "Rodeo" -- now better known as the song on the "Beef, it's what's for dinner" commercial -- on "Darby the Driver/Seallaibh Curaigh Eoghainn/Haughs of Cromdale/Fiddles on Top/Bonaparte's Retreat." (Phew!)

There's nothing wrong with A Celebration of Twenty except that it reminds me that I'm not particularly interested in Celtic folk music. Longtime fans of Iona will be interested in the evolution of their sound and in the disc of new music; Celtic folk lovers who are unacquainted with Iona will probably also find much to like on the two discs. With its zest and energy, Iona would probably be a terrific group to see live -- but in the setting of a suburban living room it comes across merely as pleasant and a little incongruous.

by Jennifer Mo
10 February 2007

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