Natalie MacMaster,
In My Hands
(Rounder Records, 1999)

I've been looking forward to the release of Natalie MacMaster's new album for a long time. This is the one where she vowed to break free of the restrictions of purely traditional Cape Breton fiddling and do something new, innovative and uniquely hers with the music. Based on the tantalizing bits of modern MacMaster on her landmark album No Boundaries and a few recent live performances I've seen, I was expecting quite a lot from the woman who ranks very high among my favorite fiddlers.

What I didn't expect was to be mildly disappointed.

There is a lot of good stuff on In My Hands, but the album seems to lack focus -- almost as if Natalie was eager to try so many new things that she spread herself too thin to really delve into any of them. That said, most of the tracks on this album are superb, so let's take a look at them individually first.

The title track, "In My Hands," features Natalie's vocal debut. While her nonverbal vocalizations hint at a good voice which could be well utilized in future endeavors, the poem she recites falls flat. Co-written by Natalie and Amy Sky, the poem strives for sensuality (if you listen closely, you'll realize it's about her fiddle, not a lover) ... but, unfortunately, Natalie's voice isn't well-suited for the words she speaks. She sounds embarrassed, and the '70s-ish synethesized backdrop is weak. Fortunately, Natalie does pick up her fiddle for a nice touch with "The Drunken Landlady" during this one.

"Welcome to the Trossachs" begins a tune set which, at the beginning, sounds like something from Natalie's old days with Dave MacIsaac on guitar and Tracey Dares on keyboard (now replaced by Gordie Sampson and Joel Chiasson). But the set builds as it progresses through "Memories of Winston," "Highlanders Farewell to Ireland," "Gravel Walks Reel," "Colonel Thornton" and "The Hurricane" -- kicking in midway with Hammond organ (Sampson again), bass (Scott Alexander), drums (Al Cross) and percussion (David Direnzo). Natalie of course leads the way throughout with her fancy fiddlework -- her fingers get moving with amazing speed near the end -- and this is definitely the sort of thing I was looking forward to on this album! It's lively and fresh, pumped up a bit with some rock sensibilities without ever losing touch with the traditional sound.

"Gramma" begins with a speech sample from Natalie's grandmother, the late Margaret Ann Cameron Beaton, which was recorded when she was 91. Her voice precedes a no-frills set of "Maudabawn Chapel/Frank's Reel," played traditionally by Natalie and Sampson on acoustic guitar, and sounding like it might have been recorded for Natalie's previous album, My Roots are Showing.

The next track, "Blue Bonnets Over the Border," spotlights Natalie's fiddle overtop a string quartet (Marie Berard and Fujiko Imajishi on violin, Douglas Perry on viola and Paul Widner on cello). The arrangement is soft and lyrical and well-executed, and it makes me wonder about the possibilities of a Symphonic MacMaster album in the future ... but seems out of place on an album with the new, rockier Natalie. "New York Jig" adds a few guest musicians to the mix, most notably Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon, plus Mary Shannon on mandolin and Laoise Kelly on harp. It's a lovely arrangement, giving each instrumentalist her due, resulting in a pleasant mix.

"Flamenco Fling" is Natalie's first recorded excursion into a Spanish sound, and she proves handily that she can master the form as easily as she does Cape Breton, Scottish and Irish styles. Her fiddle here is supported by Jesse Cook on guitars, Bruce Dixon on bass, Charlie Cooley on drums, Art Avalos on percussion and (pay attention!) Chase Sanborn and Terry Promane on trumpet, Phil Dwyer on saxophone and trombone, and a bevy of handclappers. The brass element is used minimally, but it's a great addition -- anyone who has heard Canada's La Bottine Souriante knows how well traditional folk instruments can be blended with horns.

The next one takes Natalie even further afield with "Space Ceilidh." Mixing the tunes "The Night We Had the Goats" and "The Fairy Dance," this set blends fiddle with Gordie Sampson's guitars, keyboards, programming and bass, Kevin Breit's electric guitar, Al Cross on drums, Denis Keldie on Hammond organ, Aaron Davis on the Rhodes and Jamie Foulds with additional programming. The result is a definite trip beyond the techno-pop stratosphere. Fiddler Mark O'Connor joins Natalie next for a tune of his own composing, "Olympic Reel." Their lively fiddle duet, laid over a groundwork of guitar, piano, bass and drums, is a marvelous example of musical teamwork.

The string quartet rejoins Natalie for the next two tracks: first, the MacMaster original "Father John MacLeod's Jig," which is a lovely and subtle tune, and then the vocal track "Get Me Through December." The song, written by Gordie Sampson and Fred Lavery, is based on the melody of "Neil Gow's Lament for the Death of His Second Wife." While I might have liked to hear Natalie stretch her new vocal talents here, she instead brings popular American singer Alison Krauss aboard for the tune, which is delicate and pretty and could probably find a home on country and "lite" pop radio stations.

"The Farewell" is a set including "Farewell March," "Charlie Hardie Reel," "Frank Gilruth Reel" and "McArthur Road Reel." It begins slowly with Sharon Shannon back on accordion; she is soon joined by Natalie's fiddle, and they combine beautifully for the slow march before kicking up the pace for the reels. On this track, it's the Hammond organ (Denis Keldie) and bass (James Blennerhasset) which let listeners know they've wandered astray from purely traditional tunes.

"Moxham Castle" is another throwback to Natalie's earlier albums, blending her fiddle with David MacIsaac back on guitar and Howie MacDonald on piano. When it comes to Cape Breton traditionals, Natalie seems able to do no wrong!

"Mom's Jig" introduces more aggressive percussion from drummer Al Cross while Natalie adds percussion of her own with fast-footed stepdancing and Kevin Breit adds atmosphere on the guitorgan. The album ends with "Flora MacDonald," a slow, sweet tune adding only George Kohler's bass to the traditional mix of fiddle, guitar (Gordie Sampson) and piano (Aaron Davis).

To suggest that I don't like In My Hands would be a falsehood. I quite like the music, and have been listening to it quite a lot in recent weeks. It just leaves me a little unsettled; as good as the tunes are, I can't shake the feeling that the album is missing a sort of cohesiveness, a solid direction.

That, ultimately, is the only real problem with In My Hands. Both the tunes and their execution on this album are quite excellent, and Natalie is still quite obviously at her musical peak. Her playing is exceptional, her arrangements are clever, her mix with other instruments is well-calculated. But the moment I start to enjoy one style, she rips the carpet away and lays down a new one. As much as I enjoy variety, I found myself wishing she'd stick to something for more than a few minutes at a time. As a result, the album comes across more like a sampler than an actual completed recording.

Still, it leaves me with high hopes for the next one, and I hope she heads back into the studio soon. I'm quite excited by the nontraditional potential Natalie is nurturing towards her new musical direction.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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