Ashley MacIsaac,
Hi, How Are You Today?
(A&M Records, 1995)

Now that I have finally gotten around to sitting down and writing a review of Ashley MacIsaac's album Hi, How Are You Today?, I am faced with a problem. It is easy enough to write about something bad; criticism is something that most people are well practised at. Writing about something as good as this album is where things get difficult. I'm not saying that hi, how are you today is perfect. But so far as most CDs that I have listened to go, it's pretty close.

Before you go running out to see what my definition of near perfection is, I feel responsible to give a word to the warning. Ashley MacIsaac is an incredibly talented fiddle player, one of the best I have ever heard. If you have problems with someone who plays traditional tunes at breakneck speeds and has a lot of heavy drumming and crash cymbals in the background, this may not be for you. On the other hand, if you are impressed, as I am, by incredible speed and accuracy, MacIsaac is unbeatable.

For anyone who has not heard MacIsaac before, be prepared for a very heavy album of rollicking tunes -- a sort of death folk, perhaps. MacIsaac is a rock artist who happens to do his solos on fiddle instead of guitar, and the songs just happen to be pretty old. Hi, How Are You Today? is a lot of fun, but not for the faint at heart.

The musicians who back MacIsaac up on this album hold their own with him, including singer Mary Jane Lamond who appears on "Sleepy Maggie" and "Sad Wedding Day." (Note of interest: MacIsaac appears on Lamond's first CD, which was released around the same time as this one.) As always, Lamond's vocals are beautiful, and both of the songs on this CD are performed in Gaelic. It is significant to note that though Lamond sings, it is still the fiddle that is featured in the foreground of the songs. There are many other talented musicians who appear on this album, but as the musicians change from track to track, they are unfortunately too numerous to name.

And now for the music itself. There are essentially two different groups of songs on this album; the really incredibly fast ones, and the rest. The first four tracks fit into the first category. This is not an album that can be said to ease you in to the music. The first track, "Beaton's Delight" is one of the fastest, followed by "Sleepy Maggie," which slows down only enough so that Lamond can keep up, and even as such keeps such an incredible rhythm that you don't notice that the pace has changed at all. "The Devil in the Kitchen" is incredibly frantic and high energy, as is "Sophia's Pipes." "Wing-Stock" is fast and furious, and stands out with an amazing piano intro which is also played by MacIsaac. The rest of the fast songs are not nearly so fast (but would be considered so if any other group were playing them) but what they lack in breakneck speed, they make up for in very prominent percussion lines. "Spoonboy" is aptly named due to its use of spoons as percussion, and the spoons give it a much more traditional sound than most of the other tracks on the album. "Hills of Glenrochy" is again not as fast, but has a swinging rhythm and slightly electronic sound.

The rest of the tracks comprise the slower tunes. When MacIsaac finally does take a breather, the result is as beautiful as the fast songs are energetic. The emotion that MacIsaac emits on the slow tunes, especially "MacDougall's Pride" and "Sad Wedding Day," demonstrate some of the versatility that many do not realize MacIsaac is capable of. Not only can he make you dance, but he can also tug at any sentimental heartstrings.

I really do love this album, I want to make that clear before I go on with the rest of this paragraph. There is one piece on this album which I absolutely detest. "What An Idiot He Is" seems incredibly aptly named, because someone had to be an idiot to allow this on the album. The lyrics are less than inspiring, and when MacIsaac insisted on singing, someone should have just said no. MacIsaac has a great deal of difficulty enunciating, and sounds like he's doing a Bob Dylan impersonation. The great fiddle playing is altogether missing, and the song speeds up and slows down for no particular reason. When the back-up singers come in, they are almost as unpleasant as MacIsaac. My advice is to just hit the skip button on your CD player whenever you get to track seven. The rest of it is just so much better than this one idiotic song.

Hi, How Are You Today? is a great time, though I don't recommend trying to eat at the same time you listen to it (unless you want to be done your meal very quickly). The entire album is very high energy and MacIsaac is incredibly talented. Considering that the songs are almost all backed by different groups of people, the album maintains a very consistent tone and the musicians are always together. Ashley MacIsaac is, in my opinion, one of the best fiddle players around, and knocks the tradition on its ear for fun.

If you still aren't sure about this style, try one of MacIsaac's other albums, like Fine, Thank You Very Much, for a more traditional take, but a comparable dose of his talent.

[ by Kristy Tait ]

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