The Paul McKenna Band,
(Compass, 2013)

Tony McManus,
Mysterious Boundaries
(Compass, 2013)

Scotland's Paul McKenna Band consists of either (according to CD notes) four or (according to the website) five members. (Fiddler/tenor banjo player Mike Vass's status is the source of the ambiguity; he's treated as a guest on the former, a member in the latter.) Whichever it is, the band, whose third album Elements represents, has been at the receiving end of the most extravagant of notices, such as the New York Times judgment -- cited, understandably, in all of the promotional literature -- that it is the best traditional Scottish outfit of the past two decades. Which is saying a mouthful, given the richness of that nation's homegrown music and the outsized talents of those who have performed it, as either solo singers or inside ensemble settings.

One doesn't have to indulge in hyperbole to notice that the Paul McKenna Band is pretty good, actually really good. You just need to listen, and Elements renders that an unfailingly pleasurable experience. The arrangements are modern but not experimental, which is to say they don't stray so far from their traditional roots that the connection feels in danger of breaking.

Actually, they're a continuation of the sound fashioned by 1970s revival musicians in Scotland and Ireland, namely a wedding of ballad singing to instrumental traditions. As a vehicle for rural musical expression, vocals and instruments typically occupied separate spheres. Some called the results, a contemporary take on older songs and tunes, "Celtic music," an identification that led others to object that no such thing as a pan-Celtic musical tradition exists. Celts are certainly ubiquitous over Europe and elsewhere, but the music they perform isn't tribal; it's based in styles local to the performers, wherever they happen to live and whoever their neighbors may be. None of this, of course, ought to affect one's appreciation of the music, however designated.

There is a significant body of folk music, past and present, that spans the British Isles and crosses the Atlantic Ocean to North America. McKenna and his compatriots embrace it all, albeit with an unshakable Scottish accent and orientation. The two purely traditional cuts, the well-known "Michael Hayes" and the more obscure "Mickey Dam" (a particular delight, by the way), are both Irish in origin and in references. North America is represented by Canadian James Keelaghan's intense, cinematic ballad "Cold Missouri Waters" and by American James Walton Aldridge's "No Ash Will Burn" (also covered by Della Mae on its current Rounder release This World Oft Can Be). English folksinger Nic Jones's glorious "Ruins by the Shore" gets a sterling arrangement, a highlight even in a recording bursting with them.

McKenna, who does the lead vocals, sings with a distinctive faint quiver. This has the not-faint effect of ratcheting up a song's emotional resonance into the higher atmosphere, to nearly overwhelming heights in the wrenching true tale that comprises the above-mentioned Keelaghan composition. McKenna's bandmates lay down a rhythmic, hard-driving sound that, if it doesn't resemble bluegrass in any literal way, is at least analogous to it: a meeting of old and new, venerable and fresh, in perfect, awe-inspiring harmony.

Born in Ireland, raised in Scotland, a leading presence on the acoustic-guitar scene in Europe and North America, Tony McManus is a master of instrumental arrangements of British Isles folk tunes as well as jazz and classical pieces, in the manner of an early and enduring influence of his, the pioneering John Renbourn. Mysterious Boundaries, the latest of his many accomplished albums, focuses on the purely classical, played -- unusually -- on steel strings and solo. I am, I freely confess, no authority on the classical genre -- my listening is confined to what I heard in the car from public radio -- but I think I can assure both the expert and the unlearned that McManus creates a spell of mystery and beauty in these spare arrangements of Bach (four cuts), Eric Satie and others, including no less than Thomas Aquinas, responsible for the medieval hymn "Pange Lingua."

This is the sort of recording whose depth and nuance richly repay repeated listenings, as I can attest from just such experience. Mysterious Boundaries abounds in what music gives to life.

music review by
Jerome Clark

14 September 2013

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