Mary Ann Kennedy,
An Dan: Gaelic Songs for a Modern World
(Arc Music, 2017)

Mary Ann Kennedy -- not the one who is half of the American duo Kennedy-Rose -- grew up in a Glascow, in a home where Gaelic was the primary language spoken, so she really had no choice but to be raised in and shaped by Gaelic culture. Now a presenter on BBC Radio 3, where she does a program of world music, Kennedy maintains a trifold career: broadcaster, musician and singer.

An Dan -- which translates as "the song" -- is her first solo album, and the music, described in the subtitle as being for a modern world, most of the time does not sound modern or updated. It is largely traditional in pattern, ballads accompanied by piano and strings, with the occasional tasteful nylon-string guitar. This is, in every sense of the word, mellow music, folky and polite, never pushy. It is also beautiful.

"Seinn, Horo, Seinn," which kicks off the album, is a call to music, an invitation to sing. Originally written for multiple voices, it debuted at a Scottish festival, where Kennedy first heard it. When she returned to it, years later, she says, "I realized it was begging for new music to let the song fly solo." She has supplied it.

"Taigh an Ulitt" breaks with the traditional model by adding a jazz guitar playing a chord melody and bass to the mix. Kennedy's voice floats atop the arrangement with a light jazz-oriented inflection.

Occasionally, she brings in uilleann pipes or flute to add variety to the arrangements, but Kennedy's singing -- possibly because it is in Gaelic, a language I do not speak -- tends to have a certain sameness to it. She appears to have made the decision that the voice is simply the vehicle for the tune instead of an instrument of expression. Her voice is fine but does not carry a lot of emotion to it.

After a while, you wonder which song you're listening to. All told, unless you either have a working knowledge of Gaelic or a much stronger fascination with this material than I do, you're likely to find that An Dan is pleasant but not compelling.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

9 September 2017

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