Ashley MacIsaac,
Ashley MacIsaac
(Decca, 2002)

Ashley MacIsaac has apparently stopped thinking of himself as a fiddler.

The rebellious Cape Breton musician who earned fame for his high-profile hijinks as much as wicked talent on the fiddle, has released a new, self-titled album on the Decca label. But for people who pick it up expecting more of MacIsaac's electrified brand of Cape Breton musicianship, you won't find it here.

Instead, the album is a radio-friendly folk-rock and alt-country songfest, with MacIsaac himself singing on six of 13 tracks. Also providing lead vocals here are Mary Jane Lamond, Lisa MacIsaac, Dallas Smith, Larry Gray and Terry Radigan. For MacIsaac's part, his voice has certainly improved since Helter's Celtic. There's a raw energy to his voice, similar to the rawness he exhibits while fiddling.

But I can't help but wonder what the point is here. At first I thought MacIsaac was drifting into singer-songwriter terrority, walking over ground covered by the likes of Sampson, Gallant and Gunning, but then I read the liner notes and realized MacIsaac didn't do very much writing.

MacIsaac sings, fiddles and plays piano and organ. He's joined by more than a dozen instrumentalists, in addition to the other singers. The fiddling MacIsaac we all know from previous albums makes brief appearances on a couple of tracks, but they're more like Easter eggs than a main course.

The fiddle is a fairly constant presence here, but it's used more like a rock band's lead guitar -- occasionally in lead, often in a role of support or accent. It's not the focus, which is a shame when the fiddler is as talented as MacIsaac. There's still a Cape Breton feel to the instrumentation, but what's MacIsaac trying to accomplish by attaching his name to an album on which he's not the central figure?

Perhaps the way to go here is the final track, "Fairy Dance," which combines wicked fiddling with aggressive vocals for a one-two punch. Now, that's an idea worth pursuing.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 31 January 2004

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