Susan McKeown,
(Green Linnet, 2001)

Susan McKeown is renowned for her unique interpretations of traditional music, wonderful songwriting and stunning voice. On Lowlands she does not disappoint.

Unlike many artists who mix contemporary and traditional pieces, McKeown records solo traditional albums and contemporary albums separately with her band, the Chanting House. Lowlands is a collection of traditional songs arranged in a fresh and eclectic manner.

McKeown, born in Ireland but living in New York, has brought together a huge number of incredible musicians, a dozen fantastic traditional songs and a lot of innovation. The album is full of familiar songs played in decidedly unfamiliar ways. The music is very subtle; you have to pay close attention or you will not catch many of the most extraordinary passages. It is almost a case of if you can not listen to it properly, don't listen to it at all -- it doesn't make good background music but is full of amazing moments if you listen closely.

McKeown has outdone herself in the research on the songs. Many of them have been taken from old collections, a few from other artists' recordings or learned directly from other singers. She has taken verses from different sources and combined them into one seamless piece on several songs.

There are a lot of interesting influences from the Middle East and Asia. These create a thread through the album, linking many countries and cultures together. "An Nighean Dubh (The Dark Haired Girl)" begins the album on an energetic note with a ream of instruments and a very full sound. "The Lowlands of Holland" begins with a haunting refrain on the erhu and is accompanied by both it and a banjo. This combination sounds like it should be peculiar, but after listening, I wondered why nobody had thought of this before. It seems very natural, but only if you pay attention; otherwise it sounds a bit messy. "The Bonny Greenwoodside" incorporates tablas, caxixis and finger cymbals to great effect.

Not all of the pieces have such a mix of instruments. Several are more traditional, though never boring. "Johnny Coughlin," "The Hare's Lament" (a fantastic song from the point of view of the prey in a hunt), "To Fair London Town" and "The Moorlough Shore" are all arranged with such instruments as guitars, fiddles, whistles and bodhrans.

Two absolutely stellar tracks fall next to each other. First is "Lord Baker," where McKeown has compiled her own favourite versions of the different verses to create an epic story accompanied by an epic sound. "Dark Horse on the Wind" is the only non-traditional piece on the album. Written by Liam Weldon, it is sung a cappella in a strong, passionate voice by McKeown. Either of these tracks is worth owning Lowlands for.

McKeown has very interesting interpretations and the music she has created is completely different. If a favourite song is on this album, I recommend buying it to hear what fascinating things she has done to it. If these are all unfamiliar, but you are interested in either Celtic or world music, this a wonderful recording that easily incorporates both.

- Rambles
written by Jean Emma Price
published 12 June 2004

Buy it from