Mouth Music,
Seafaring Man
(Nettwerk, 2001)

This is not the Mouth Music you might expect.

Martin Swan is still at its helm, but previous incarnations of this popular but transitional band will not have prepared you for Seafaring Man. The in-your-face arrangements, strident vocals and Afro-pop rhythms are gone, replaced by a smoother, more reflective sound that dips into its Celtic ancestry without focusing upon it.

Be warned, anyone expecting Celtic music will be surprised. The CD opens with "Seafaring Man," a jazz-inflected blues piece that touches on the band's Celtic roots only through its theme of loss and waiting. The faintly disturbing "Whaling Ship" expands on the theme, swapping Kaela Rowan's vocals for Martin Furey's and inserting a bit of Irish-style fiddle into the mix. Then it's Ishbel MacAskill's turn on "Milleadh Nam Braithrean," one of only two traditional pieces on the album.

Rowan returns to sing "Manitoba," followed by Furey again on "Month of July." Rowan and Furey provide all of the remaining vocals, with one exception; Swan takes over himself on "Inveralligin." The band returns to its roots briefly for the second traditional song, "Thoira Nall Ailean Thugam," a piece of puirt a beul, or mouth music. Rowan's vocals are supported by ample percussion in a laidback arrangement.

Swan holds it all together, both as composer of nearly all of the music and as the primary instrumentalist, supplying fiddle, flute, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, accordion, xylophone, bowed psaltry, zither, shawm, hammered dulcimer, triangle, calabash, cabasa, mbira, shaker and other percussion. The lyrics as well as the overall sound is introspective, a mellower approach to his music than Swan's previous releases have exhibited.

Anyone buying a Mouth Music album for its prominent dance rhythms should check out the earlier releases (Mouth Music, 1991; Mo Di, 1992; Shorelife, 1994). This one could inspire dancing, but it's more of the close-up and slow-groovin' variety. The worldbeat influences have largely disappeared, too; this CD focuses on subtle Celtic layers under a veneer of soft pop and jazz influences. For anyone who is new to the Mouth Music experience or who can get past the expectations created by previous efforts by the band, this is a wholly satisfying package that is both lush and relaxing.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 6 April 2002

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