Karen Matheson,
The Dreaming Sea
(Survival, 1996)

The Dreaming Sea was Karen Matheson's first solo album, released to complement her ongoing work with Capercaillie. The arrangements are reflective and mellow, and she teams up for the first time here with Scottish songwriter James Grant (ex-Love and Money). Notable musical contributors are Tommy Smith (soprano sax), Fraser Spiers (harmonica), James Grant (guitars),and the strings of the BT Ensemble. Above all of this rests Matheson's strong, pure and beautiful voice. Donald Shaw's assured production results in a captivating fusion of traditional Scots/Gaelic music with the jazz genre.

Kicking off with Grant's songs: The guitar/banjo work and Fraser Spiers' harmonica are fabulous on "There's Always Sunday." "The Dreaming Sea" is a sensual love song, accompanied by sweeping string arrangements that seem to take you down to the sea's dark, swirling depths: "When I close my eyes I feel the whole world swim ... till I don't know where you end, where I begin." The strings are also beautiful in "At the End of the Night," where Matheson's heartfelt vocal conveys an emotion that would melt the hardest of hearts! Grant's final contribution, "Evangeline," is a deceptively simple song of celebration.

Shaw's "Early Morning Grey" is a very cool song; his evocative lyrics transport you to a lonely loch to forget about the everyday cares of life. Shaw also contributes the jazzy "Move On," and there is a lovely cover version of Sandy Denny's peace song "One More Chance."

A song of immense impact and significance is "Calbharaigh," for it captures and preserves a piece of Scottish history. The late poet Sorley Maclean recites in Gaelic his embittered poem about the poverty and squalor of the slums of Edinburgh and Glasgow; Matheson echoes his words in song, where the ambience is striking. To hear this influential Gaelic poet reciting his own work on this album is a true privilege. "Mi le M'uilinn" (by the late Lewis bard Murdo MacFarlane) is another standout track, with Shaw's piano and Smith's soprano sax an inspired delight. Matheson's live vocal is sublime as she sings this tale of a woman's anguish at being separated from her loved one.

The remaining Gaelic songs are excellent. "Rithill Aill" and "Fac Thu Na Feidh" are rhythmic puirt a beul songs -- Matheson is a world leader in this singing style. "'Ic Iain Ic Sheumais" is an emotional song of loss, with a quite wonderful vocal sample by Yanka Rupkina (found on the compilation Voices). Former Capercaillie flautist/bodhran player Marc Duff makes a welcome guest appearance on "An Fhideag Airgid."

This is an intelligent, beautifully crafted collection of songs.

- Rambles
written by Debbie Koritsas
published 10 April 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.