Keltik Elektrik,
Edinburgh Hogmanay Party Mix
(Greentrax, 1999)

It's always a shame when a decent album is spoiled by unfairly high expectations caused by promoters who get to scribble endorsements on the cover. That was certainly the case with Edinburgh Hogmanay Party Mix which, despite the cheese dripping from the title and the too-cute use of the letter K in the band's name, seemed like it might have something a little different to offer in the realm of modern spins on old tunes.

On this album, which is billed as a "wild and wicked sountrack [sic] for your Hogmanay and New Year celebrations," the promoters issued this tongue-in-cheek caveat: "Health Warning: High Energy Music! It is not adviseable to try and do Scottish Country Dancing to these tracks!" That led me to expect an album filled to the gills with blisteringly fast music, plugged in and jazzed up for a hearty party atmosphere.

("Hogmanay," according to the brief liner notes, is the annual celebration outside Edinburgh's Tron Kirk on High Street, where the yearly New Year's festivities have evolved into "good-humoured anarchy.")

It's a shame, then, that the very first track -- "The Clumsy Lover" -- is played no faster than most and slower than many versions of the popular bagpipe tune. And, while fiddler John Martin carries the melody nicely, the accompanying electric guitar and beat box don't really make me want to dance.

Martin's fiddle certainly picked up a bit of a blister on the next track, "Alehouse/The Ale is Dear," and Sandy Brechin provides a nice counterpoint on accordion, but programmer Jack Evans may have been wearing too much polyester while deciding what electronic bumps and squooches to surround them with. The traditional tune here is handled well, but the '70s disco ornamentation is more distracting than enjoyable.

The third track, "Caledonia," brings us to a mistake which thankfully surfaced only occasionally on this album: vocals. Singer Jim Malcolm doesn't have a party voice, and this slow-paced chestnut certainly didn't increase my yen for a dance floor.

Mairi Campbell joins Martin on fiddles for "Lexy Macaskill," which also features Brechin on accordion. Unfortunately, Evans is still stuck in the '70s, and his work here is pushing past distracting to annoying. And still, we haven't come across anything which would get a dancer's heart rate up much beyond normal.

"Blue Dalzell" got my hopes up when Campbell surged into some fast and lovely fiddle licks, but she only had the spotlight for a few short seconds before Evans got his fingers flying on the disco buttons again. It's a shame, because he has some nice ideas; the use of a choral sample of "He Mandu" sounds quite good in there, and even the faux mouth harp works fairly well with the fiddle, and the bit of faux harpsichord and piano ("Mairi's Wedding") are great touches.

In "New Mullindhu," Evans wisely sticks mostly to a straightforward traditional approach (plus drums). Oddly, this one uses no traditional instruments, according to the liner notes, but sticks only to Evans' electronic gizmos. Still, he manages to cobble together a nice ensemble of piano and winds, and it works.

Malcolm returns for "Wild Mountain Thyme," a traditional Scottish favorite which suffers from the overuse of Evans' beat box. (Couldn't they afford a living drummer? Drums sound so much better when they're real.) Even Martin's lovely fiddle solo can't save this one.

Fortunately, Dougie Pincock's bagpipes could save "Jigtime," a lively dance track mixing pipes with Evans' electric guitar and, yes, more beat box rhythms. This is one of the better tracks on the album, although it's still nothing so fast that a skilled dancer would breathe heavy at the end.

Pincock sticks around to do what he can for "Flower of Scotland/Amazing Grace," and Evans adds a nice touch on the banjo, of all things, during "Grace." But ooh, the smarmy rhythm he programmed into the board for this one really does a number on an otherwise grand performance.

Evans and Malcolm both show what they're capable of on a fun version of "Donald's Little Cascade," which includes Malcolm singing the Scottish pantsless favorite, "Donald, Where's Your Trousers?" Brechin's accordion meshes nicely here with Evans on acoustic and electric guitars, banjo and whistle, and finally he's learned how to use his electronics to accent, not bludgeon, the tune.

The album ends, as you knew it must, with "Auld Lang Syne," sung by an uncredited Malcolm, and a vigorous set of pipe reels led by Pincock. The beat box is as irritating as usual, particularly the fake-sounding high hats, and there are far too many of those disco claps programmed into the set, but Pincock's piping is strong enough to rise above Evans' mess.

Evans, who also produced this album, had a good idea. Unfortunately, he didn't see it through to its logical conclusion and he ended up with a recording of fine musicians stuck with amateur-sounding electronics. Next time, he should try turning his performers loose a bit more, using the programmables to embellish, not overwhelm, the traditional base.

Also, Evans set himself up for a fall by promising on the outside what he never came close to delivering on the inside. Although certainly fast-paced at times, there's nothing on Edinburgh Hogmanay Party Mix to merit his jestful warning on the cover. It sets expectations for listeners which bring only disappointment when he fails to live up to them.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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