Howie MacDonald,
Just Relax
(Spectrum, 1998)

When I first heard that Howie MacDonald had a relaxation album, I was a little mystified, but intrigued. When I think of Howie MacDonald, relaxation is just about the last thing on my mind. Wacky antics, high-energy performances and zany humour, yes, but ... relaxation? Well, as it turns out, this album is high on my list of favorites, and quite often finds its way into my CD player after a rough day. I would highly recommend it to anyone who needs a good calming of the nerves, or just wants some pleasant tunes to accompany him as he goes about his daily activities.

The idea of such an album came about after the sudden death of Howie's father-in-law in 1996, and, accordingly, a percentage of the proceeds from sales are donated to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. MacDonald, from Sydney, Nova Scotia, provides keyboards, fiddle and (along with Mike Wadden) sound effects. He is joined by Dave McKeough and Blaine Aitkens on classical guitar, and Marilyn MacDonald contributes some exquisite vocals on one track. Also of note is script author Sheldon MacInnes, who furnishes some wonderful reading to set the background for the tunes.

The first time I heard this album was on a two-week vacation on the lovely Cape Breton island, Canada. Much of this vacation was spent sitting by a warm fire, sipping tea with friends and enjoying the spectacular fall colours. One would be hard-pressed to find a more relaxing vacation venue. Listening to the CD later, it didn't take much effort to bring such a scene back to mind.

In the first track, "Alone," the sounds of the morning weather forecast and a steaming kettle fade as someone sits on a porch swing and whistles a tune. Howie takes over with his fiddle, and the lovely air, "Nach Truagh Mo Chas," can be heard alongside a gentle breeze, the melodies of birds, and even horses and cattle. Not your typical sound effects, but relaxing? Oh yes. And the rest of the album doesn't disappoint, either.

Each track on the album follows a theme, and takes the listener to a different setting. A look-off over the picturesque St. Ann's Bay, fishing the Margaree River, walking a trail at Hector's Point, whale-watching in the Atlantic, listening to tunes on the boardwalk, a thunderstorm ... even a game of golf -- Howie has all sorts of different means of relaxing covered with this album. He combines sound effects both typical and unusual with plenty of variation and improvisation to the gentle airs featured on each track.

The most typical Howie-like track on the CD would have to be "The Golfer's Mulligan," where he somehow manages to combine the frustrating ritual of golf with "Ford's Schottische." Complete with sounds of the swinging golf club, balls pinging off of trees and the gentle "plop" of a water shot, it makes me chuckle each time I hear it. And what, I ask, is more relaxing than a good laugh?

Although not in the style people have come to expect from Howie MacDonald, this album certainly shines. He plays the airs and melodies on the album with passion and grace -- and is equally impressive on both fiddle and keyboard. His playful style which is so apparent on other albums is always just below the surface, and comes bubbling through at frequent intervals. For the serious Howie MacDonald fan, this CD shows a different dimension to his music. For the serious fan of fireside chats and fresh-brewed tea, the album is an ideal companion. And for the seriously stressed-out? Just Relax!

[ by Cheryl Turner ]