Eileen McGann,
Heritage
(Borealis, 1997)

It's gotten to the point I don't even need a stereo to listen to Eileen McGann's Heritage. The music seems to follow me everywhere, tunes popping into my head at odd moments 'round the clock.

I'll credit McGann's strong vocals and her excellent arrangements of traditional tunes for the album's staying power. I've heard a lot of these tunes before, in various guises, but seldom have they tugged at my memory so.

Although the album boasts a fine assortment of musicians (10 players, besides McGann), many of McGann's arrangements make sparse use of them. The first track, "Blackwaterside," is a nice introduction, combining McGann's vocals and acoustic guitar with David K's harmony vocals, Irish bouzouki and bass, George Koller's cello and Winston Murray's subtle flute.

When I checked the liner notes to see whose harmony vocals meshed so perfectly with McGann's in "Peggy Gordon," I discovered it was McGann herself, singing dual tracks to nice effect. On the a cappella "Lowlands," McGann blends her lead and harmony vocals with the voices of David K and Garnet Rogers. She sings "My Grief on the Sea," an evocative song of mourning, with only the drone of Steafan Hannigan's uillean pipe behind her.

The album returns to a fuller arrangement for "The Rolling of the Stones." The story of brotherly jealousy and murder features Oliver Schroer on fiddle, David Woodhead on fretless bass and Koller again on cello, plus David K on harmony vocals and guitar and Ben Grossman on bodhran. McGann sings lead and harmony vocals and plays acoustic guitar for a memorable track. Then Eileen (lead and harmony vocals) and David K (harmony) sing an a cappella rendition of the English love song "Faithful Johnny."

Schroer's fiddle and David K's harmony vocals provide a nice background, but I thought McGann's presentation of the English "A Beggin' I Will Go" was a little too somber -- after all, the singer is supposed to be celebrating the joys of begging over other, lesser professions -- but McGann must have had the same thought. Midway through the track, she kicks into "Tae the Beggin' I Will Go," the Scottish version of the same song, which is much livelier and more joyful (with the addition of bouzouki, bass and bodhran). The track ends with a peppy run of "The Little Beggarman."

Grit Laskin on English concertina provides lovely atmosphere for the tragic "Lord Franklin." Loretto Reid adds a nice touch with whistles, too. From that tale of doomed voyagers, McGann proceeds to a story of "adultery, betrayal, chase scenes, sex and violence" in "Little Musgrave," a Child ballad (No. 81) performed here with a storyteller's flair. McGann sings "As I Walked Out" over a rolling backdrop of fiddle and percussion before launching into the upbeat instrumental "Farewell to Erin."

McGann's voice is particularly fine -- and that's saying something! -- on "The Beltane," an observation on ancient rites by a young, innocent couple. "Female Drummer" is a variation of a song sung many times by many female singers -- the protagonist is usually a sailor in other versions, I've heard -- but this is the best I've heard. McGann's vocals are strong and spritely, and Corey Thompson's drum provides the perfect setting.

The album ends -- too soon, believe me -- with "There'll Be More Joy," a lovely a cappella piece featuring McGann (twice), David K. and Dan Brodbeck.

Canadian artists continue to provide us with some of the finest Celtic music on the market. McGann, from Alberta, is an excellent example of that great tradition.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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