Karen Matheson,
(Vertical, 2005)

Perhaps it's because the songs on Downriver seem so personal; perhaps it's because the album feels so different from its predecessors. Either way, this is Karen Matheson's most rewarding solo release to date.

She has reaffirmed her position as one of the most enchanting singers in the Scottish-Gaelic language; her voice shimmers with passion yet at the same time exudes a cool elegance. She's so evidently singing in her most natural register; all your attention is focused on her voice's many emotional shades.

This album of predominantly Gaelic material was recorded at Crear Studios, Argyll, and the tranquil setting has somehow alchemised into Matheson's vocals. She has assembled a remarkable group of musicians, including Donald Shaw, James Grant, Ewen Vernal, James Mackintosh, Aidan O'Rourke, Donal Lunny and Michael McGoldrick.

James Grant's "I Will Not Wear the Willow" (one of two English songs) is a dark ballad of breathtaking beauty -- so convincing it could have been written centuries ago, and it's sung with an emotion that slays. The song closes with the poignantly repeated words: "he won't be coming back...." These words are preceded by a staggeringly beautiful orchestral arrangement.

There's a fantastically bluesy puirt a beul; Matheson's lightning-quick vocals are swept along by the unrelenting flow of guitar, bodhran and drum, whilst a stunning waulking song, "O nach eisdeadh," delivers maximum sensory impact with its bass and percussion-driven rhythm. Poet Aonghas MacNeacail lends a magnificently celebratory Gaelic lyric to "Luadh An Toraidh" -- in translation, Matheson sends out an upbeat rallying call: "Sing and sing, O sing good neighbour/sing it new, our ancient language!"

The Gaelic laments and ballads deliver a huge emotional body blow -- Donald Shaw displays a deeply touching empathy when accompanying Matheson on piano, especially on the "quieter" arrangements, which are consistently beautiful to listen to. These songs are deeply affecting, understated and supremely powerful -- none more so than "Chi mi bhuam" and the agonizingly beautiful Irish lament "Crucan na bpaiste." McGoldrick's uilleann pipe solo is exquisite here.

This is a beautifully produced album that reveals Matheson's voice at its most elegant. It will delight her fans, and lovers of Gaelic song alike.

by Debbie Koritsas
12 November 2005

[ visit the artist's website ]