Karen Matheson,
Time to Fall
(Vertical, 2002)

Many music listeners (including myself) regard Karen Matheson's voice as the finest in contemporary Celtic music. Best known as the vocalist of Capercaillie, she is now complementing this role with an exciting additional career as a solo artist. Matheson's latest album, released in May 2002 after a far too long gap of six years since her debut (The Dreaming Sea), has made a big impact on the roots scene well beyond only Celtic folk. The album combines the traditional and contemporary, and throughout there is something unexpected and wonderful around every corner.

Matheson's voice is always strong yet sensitively lyrical, and on this album it encompasses a breathtaking range of emotions. The fine songwriter James Grant plays an important part, having written six of the 12 songs as well as playing the guitar and providing backing vocals. Matheson's singing is ideally suited to his passionate lyrics with their sharp, modern edge.

The album opens with "All the Flowers of the Bough," a Grant song which typically talks of fate and love. Besides Grant, Matheson is accompanied by three other musicians who feature throughout -- Ewen Vernal (bass), James Mackintosh (percussion and drums) and Donald Shaw (piano and keyboards). Perhaps the best Grant song on the album is "Speed of Love," which reveals how well Matheson can interpret contemporary material. In the middle of the song there is a special moment when three poignant lines are just simply spoken -- "Calgary beach / The smell of gorse like coconut and peach / and the world stretched out in front of me" -- and seem to invite us to pause and reflect. The latter line evokes for me a key theme in the album.

Despite the huge success of the nine contemporary songs (two are by Bobby Henry and Paul McGeechan -- with Matheson herself contributing to one of these -- and one by Shaw), my very favourites are the one Burns song and two traditional Gaelic numbers. Burns' "Bonnie Jean," with the music by Ross Kennedy, is a hugely powerful rendition. It demonstrates the potential Matheson has of being a great interpreter of Burns. The sea, also important in "Speed of Love," dominates the two traditional songs. "An Ataireachd Ard" is a dramatic new version of a song Matheson sung on Capercaillie's The Blood is Strong album back in 1988. The most exciting song for me is "Moch di Luain." The traditional lyrics are simply about a boat's maiden voyage out of Stornoway. The arrangement by Matheson and McGeechan ensures we can smell the sea, hear the waves, feel the movement of the boat and sense the unbounded joy of the boatmen. As the boat rounds Tiumpan Head, it seems to capture the whole emotional journey of the album itself -- spirited and free.

- Rambles
written by Andy Jurgis
published 13 March 2004

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