Connie MacAskill,
Closer to Home
(Creating Tradition, 2001)

Closer to Home is the first recording project for singer Connie MacAskill. Hopefully, it won't be her last. Her enthusiasm for Cape Breton is amazing and is well represented in this collection of tunes. If there is a musical ambassador for Cape Breton, it should be MacAskill.

The selection of tunes on this recording represent some of the best songwriters in the Cape Breton tradition -- Alastair Macdonald, Allister MacGillivray, Sam Moon and Buddy MacDonald, to name a few. Most of the tunes praise the beauty of the island, sing mournfully of leaving and homesickness, or reminisce about the tradition known as the house party.

MacAskill's clear, strong voice is comparable to that of one of her earliest idols, Anne Murray. There's only one song on the whole CD that pushes the limit of her lower vocal range, but otherwise, her voice just adds to the beauty of the words. Her style is mostly folk, occasionally coming through with a little country, sometimes a little rock, which probably comes from what she calls another lifetime.

Her love of the island comes from her upbringing -- her grandfather's uncle, Angus MacAskill, was the Cape Breton giant noted in the Guinness Book of World Records in the 1800s. It was his parents who came over during the Highland Clearances. The telling and re-telling of their history is a Scottish tradition, and she continues the tradition in her rendition of "Hush, Hush," a lullaby about the Clearances written by Jim MacLean.

Another tradition the Cape Bretoners are famous for is the house party, and to that honorable event several songs make reference. The recording includes her lively renditions of "Up the Road I'll Go" and "Getting Dark Again," both of which have a bluegrass flavor to them, both of which make house parties sound like more fun than should be legal when she sings them.

She shows her versatility on "Down in Cape Breton," which takes on a calypso beat and an electric rock sound. While the subject matter is tragic -- it's a tribute written by Tracy Cavanaugh to his grandfather, who died from black lung -- she keeps the song from being morbid, and it remains a positive memory of the family's champion. "Every Mile" is a country waltz that also shows MacAskill's vocal style flexibility. It's hard to keep from getting up and dancing along -- it's a tune that will get you waltzing back home if you've managed to stray.

Just as her voice sings with a smile on tunes like "Girl's of Neil's Harbour," MacAskill's voice also carries a sad, aching wistfulness on the tunes that sing of leaving home, homesickness and coming home, such as "On Cape Breton Isle," "Heading for Halifax" and "Causeway Crossing," a place that was "built for going away." In "My Island," her voice is so expressive as it communicates the mixed feelings of those who leave home seeking independence, yet miss home so much, they call home just to hear the voices they remember. She finishes up the CD with another song about the perils of leaving home, "You'll Be Home Again." Her voice is somewhat dreamy, and yet somewhat matter-of-fact. If I were someone who hadn't left yet, it would sure make me think twice about going.

Backing MacAskill on this project are the very talented Kevin Evans, who plays most of the instruments on the CD, Roger Stone, who adds a wonderful clawhammer banjo, and Martin St. Maurice on fiddle.

While there's often talk of the "native land sae far awa'" there is certainly a deep abiding love for the new one. To paraphrase an old rock song, "if you can't be in the land you love, love the land you're in" -- it certainly seems to be the philosophy of the exiled Scots. After listening to Connie MacAskill sing these songs, it's hard to believe any of them would ever leave Cape Breton and go back to Scotland.

[ by Alanna Berger ]
Rambles: 21 December 2001