Mad Pudding,
Dirt & Stone
(Iona Records, 1996)

It was the band's name which caught my eye. "Mad Pudding" had a certain ring to it which, for some reason or another, appealed. When I saw tune names like "The Toast" (parts one and two), "Hey to the Pipes" and "Dance of the Hungry Panda," I knew I had to hear this album.

The album did not disappoint. The band's sound is traditional enough to satisfy a thirst for Celtic roots music, but original enough to give Mad Pudding an identity apart from the majority of traditional bands on the market.

Mad Pudding is a British Columbia band consisting of Andy Hillhouse on lead vocals, guitar, mandolin and bouzouki, John Hildebrand on drums and percussion, Amy Stephen on lead vocals, accordion, pennywhistle and recorder, Cam Wilson on fiddle and vocals, and Richard Ernst on fretless bass and vocals. They are, based on the evidence supplied, something of a quirky bunch.

Take "Dance of the Hungry Panda." According to the liner notes, the tune by Cam Wilson was inspired by a National Geographic special on the giant panda. That TV documentary somehow inspired the idea that the panda, which quietly munches on bamboo shoots when the camera crews are around, discards its passive nature once they're gone and dances wildly around the trees. The tune, which spotlights primarily the fiddle, whistle and bass, certainly evokes a sort of carefree dancing spirit, and the mental image of a wildly cavorting panda seems wickedly perfect for it, both kicking up its heels in a Celtic spirit and getting down and funky with the groove. (The tune follows the much slower "Air," which depicts, I suppose, the panda mugging sedately for the viewers at home.)

Dirt & Stone has more vocal tracks than straight instrumental, and most of the tracks were written by one or another member of the band. Unlike some bands, Mad Pudding seems to have a good handle on what original material works well in the final analysis.

"Patchwork" is an optimistic love song by Amy Stephen, whose writing has obviously dominated this album to mostly good effect. I'm not sure I get Amy's use of the fiddle and pipes as a metaphor for community and cooperation, but her song "Hey to the Pipes" is a nice song all the same. However, the vocal harmonies create a kind of ambient tension which doesn't necessarily match the words.

"The Ploughman's Son" is another of Amy's originals, a lighthearted and fun tune which sets out to offset the ill luck usually suffered by women in folk songs. As she explains in the notes, "I wanted to sing one in which the woman gets to have maximum fun, with minimal consequences." So, no one dies, no one gets pregnant, there is no love that's unrequited, and no one is abandoned by a deceitful seducer. "Service" is Amy's sardonic musical commentary on the kind of attention the uncool get in typical music stores.

Andy Hillhouse takes a shot at songwriting on the title track. Although the solo a capella beginning had me a little worried for a bit, the song picks up immensely once the instruments and backing vocals join in. Andy's second original song, "Brandon Town," is a slow, touching story sung from his immigrant great-grandmother's point of view.

Although most of the tracks are original, there are a few interesting traditional selections. Most are instrumental, excepting "The Dewy Dells of Yarrow," a border song with tragic results, and "Spanish Lady" (not to be confused with "Spanish Ladies"), a rather pointless ditty lyrically about an immodest Spanish lady in Dublin who declines the singer's advances. Performed a capella, it presents some excellent choral harmonies.

There are a few more instrumentals scattered throughout. "Indian Reel," a popular fiddle tune in Ontario and Quebec, begins the album in style before kicking into the well-known "Red-Haired Boy." "The Toast" features a few Irish traditional dance tunes, joined with a Richard Ernst original which, despite its traditional flavor on the surface, was definitely written by a bass player. "Crazy Creek Set" switches the attention to whistle instead of fiddle for the introduction to an Irish tune, "The Green Mountain." "Crazy Creek" and "Johnny on the Woodpile" follow in short order. "Heather Bonn/Island Ferry" is a pair of lively Canadian fiddle tunes. Two more traditional fiddle tunes, "Big John McNeil/St. Anne's Reel," close the album in a deceptively energetic arrangement.

Dirt & Stone is another point in the favor of the Celtic-Canadian music scene. It's certainly worth finding a copy; Mad Pudding is, dare I say it, something you can sink your teeth into like Jell-o....

[ by Tom Knapp ]