Ashley MacIsaac,
Helter's Celtic
(Loggerhead, 1999)

Anyone picking this up expecting a sample of fine Cape Breton fiddling might be a little surprised. You have heard of MacIsaac, right? He's Cape Breton's wild child.

Take "Fairy," Helter's Celtic vigorous first track. It's a techno-raver's dream, suitable for any nightclub dance floor. You might not even realize that the frantic melody is coming from MacIsaac's madly sawing fiddle. The traditional "The Green Fields of Glentown" is a brief fiddle-only tune, distorted to sound like a scratchy old vinyl track from the early heydays of Irish recording. "Belle Cote" brings back the club sound to a lesser extent, although here the fiddle tune is sometimes overshadowed by the volume of the backing band. "The John Morrison" does a better job of keeping the pop instrumentation (nice touches include an unidentified female's not-quite comprehensible vocals and some electric "oompahs") beneath the fiddle melody.

I'll admit right away, my favorite tracks on this album are "The B Flat Cloggs" and "The F Cloggs." Both are traditional sets featuring a straightforward fiddle and piano, mixed to sound as if they were both recorded in a community ceili hall -- a nice touch which allows MacIsaac's superb fiddling to shine through without the musical blandishments which frequently draw too much attention from the star of the show. Then he's back to the funk, for the ever-popular tune "Gravel Walk," personalized with heavy distoration, fiddle mixing with uilleann pipes mixing with a hard rock slam.

Then, MacIsaac spends a few tracks exercising his vocal chords. As a singer, he makes a great fiddler -- but these tracks are fairly painful, and it's only for review purposes that I managed to sit through them more than once. "Whiz Kids" starts off with a smokin' fiddle line, but then words get in the way. (There's dialogue, too; I'm assuming you had to see the movie Whiz Kids to understand the point.) "New Orleans" isn't bad if you're into a late-'70s disco sound; I was startled to learn that it's a MacIsaac original. "Oh Yes I Yes I Am" is some kind of electro-soundscape, an exercise for fiddle, a few indistinguishable vocals and synthesizers. "I'm Movin' On" is a hard rock grunge anthem, loud and screechy.

Fortunately, MacIsaac comes back into his own for the final two tracks. "Andy Renwick's Ferret" is a lively reel which sets his fiddle on fire; the bass and percussion accents the sound instead of overpowering it. The CD ends with a low-key, jazzy, only slightly distorted and industrial version of a tune MacIsaac lists as the Scottish "Johnny Cope" -- although, to my ears, it sounds a whole lot more like another Scottish melody, "The Mist-Covered Mountains of Home."

MacIsaac continues to push the boundaries of music, and it's nice to hear that he's retaining some aspects of his Cape Breton traditions in even his wildest explorations. Some tracks on Helter's Celtic are an unqualified success; others will try the patience of even die-hard Ashley fans.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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