Maggie MacInnes,
Spiorad Beatha: The Spirit of Life
(Marram, 2001)

I would advise anyone interested in contemporary arrangements of Gaelic songs not to hesitate to add this album to your collection. If you want to hear the epitome of a living tradition, then Spiorad Beatha: The Spirit of Life is the album for you -- without a doubt. Maggie MacInnes's second solo album is of the highest quality throughout the inspiring 12 songs. MacInnes is not afraid to take the tradition and reinterpret it in a vibrant and modern way.

It is difficult when reviewing an album of such consistent excellence to select highlights but there are several tracks that are quite outstanding. There can be very few finer starts to an album than "Gura mise tha fo Eislean/I am full of grief." The song begins with the beautiful simplicity of MacInnes's clarsach playing, then is overlaid by her ethereal voice. The song really gains momentum through the wonderful chorus sung by youngsters Ruaraidh and Calum Park with children from Bunsgoil Ghaidhlig Ghlaschu/Glasgow Gaelic Primary School and Ali Napier. Twelve single lines sung by MacInnes are followed each time by a haunting three-line chorus, creating an almost hypnotic effect through the song. This is an extraordinary opener.

"A' Mhaighdeann Bharrach/The Barra Maiden," composed by the late Father John MacMillan, is the only nontraditional song here. This is a song of vocal purity, simply accompanied by the clarsach and keyboard. Just when you have settled into the beauty of the song, it is further enhanced by the stunning fiddle playing of Charlie McKerron at his very best. If ever there were a song to transport your senses and soul to the Outer Hebrides, then this is the one to do it for sure.

One of the most memorable tracks of the album consists of two waulking songs. The first is rather sombre, but it's followed by one of the most uplifting songs I have heard in this genre with the memorable refrains by the children again, plus MacInnes's mother, the formidable Flora MacNeil, and three male backing vocals. The two songs are concluded by another superb passage by McKerron's fiddle. What a wonderful experience it must have been for the children to be involved in this album -- surely a lifelong memory for them. "O Hu as mo run air/Oh, my love" is an achingly beautiful song. There is a perfect unity of vocal and clarsach evoking a sense of huge longing and love. This is augmented even further by Sean O'Rourke's saxophone, emphasising that even the most traditional of songs can be made new in such a contemporary way.

These four songs already make the album a truly outstanding one for me, but it is the album's penultimate song, "Calum Beag O Thir a'Mhurain; The Twisted Bridge/Little Calum from the Land of the Marram Grass," that excites me even more. On an album in which the subject matter of these Gaelic songs tends to be characteristically gloomy to say the least (for example, four laments, three songs of being abandoned by a lover and two others about separations!) this light-hearted and uplifting song will certainly raise everyone's spirits. It is another song in which the tune is first taken up by the clarsach and then continued by the vocal. Although the meaning of the imagist-type lyrics is not absolutely clear there is no doubt that our man Calum is a lively and jaunty lad out in his boat without a sail. I love these basic Gaelic songs that just celebrate seafaring life; it reminds me in some ways of Karen Matheson's superb rendition of "Moch di Luain" (on her Time to Fall album). After the vocal has finished, the tune is continued by Keith Easdale's Scottish smallpipes. The number continues in rich vein with fiddle, percussion and whistle capturing the sense of the boat's vulnerability in the waves at the same time as the cocky confidence of Calum out there on his boat "with his bonnet in his fist."

A characteristic of the album is how many of the songs start simply with vocals and clarsach, then develop in a more complex way with varied instrumentation. This is certainly not a conservative approach to the tradition by MacInnes and invariably there may be some disagreement about the odd arrangement here and there (I am not sure about the rather intrusive electric guitar in the second song). Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression of the album is of exciting innovation and huge achievement. This is a Gaelic song album that will be difficult to better.

- Rambles
written by Andy Jurgis
published 15 November 2003

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