The Rankin Family,
The Rankin Family
(Capitol/EMI, 1989)

If you've read my reviews of two later Rankin albums, Fare Thee Well Love and North Country, you'll know how I feel about the Nova Scotian family's unfortunate fondness for country music. So imagine my delight, on my last trip up to Toronto, to pick up a copy of the band's early, self-titled release, The Rankin Family.

At this stage in their career, the five Rankin siblings have not yet fallen under the hypnotic spell of their cousins to the south. There are a few hints where they'll be going, but they're easily ignored; otherwise, this is a solid album full of the stuff that makes this family great.

The album begins with a sprightly traditional Gaelic song, "Mo Run Geal, Dileas (My Faithful Fair One)." The song introduces us to the family: sisters Cookie, Heather and Raylene have amazing vocal skills, and their harmonies are nigh unto perfect; Jimmy, the band's primary writer, has a good voice himself, and handles guitar and drum as well; and John, who sings but rarely, fills out the sound with fiddle, guitar, piano and bass.

Jimmy takes the vocal lead for one of his originals, "Lonely Island," which seems to tell the plight of the Rankins' native Cape Breton Island and Nova Scotia's troubled coast -- but could easily be about the failing coast and islands of Ireland, too. Another Jimmy original, "Loving Arms," is a pleasant song about cheerful romance.

John gets the spotlight next for some adept piano playing. The medley, titled "Piano Medley," includes "Memories of Bishop MacDonald," a slow introduction, and the livelier "The Tweeddale Club," "MacFarlane's Rant" and "Lively Steps." Then it's back to the singers, featuring first the Rankin women, then later Jimmy, on the perky traditional song "Mairi's Wedding," coupled with "Michael Rankin's Reel" written by John and performed by him on a smokin' fiddle over the sound of his sisters' high-energy stepdancing.

Jimmy's next song, "Roving Gypsy Boy," had me fooled into thinking it was a traditional piece. I'm surprised I haven't heard this one covered by other bands; it's an exceptional free-spirited roving tune.

Another traditional Gaelic song, "Chi Mi Na Morbheanna (Mist Covered Mountains)," is presented here as an almost a cappella choral piece, and the harmonies of those Rankin siblings are absolutely gorgeous to hear. The first time I heard this song on a friend's cassette I was stabbing for the rewind button the moment it ended. It's hard to capture in words the exquisite tones and the splendid, soaring harmonies, but take my word for it: "Chi Mi Na Morbheanna" is an outstanding track that will easily floor most listeners.

John takes the lead again for a fiddle medley (called "Fiddle Medley") consisting of four traditionals, "The Warlock's Strathspey," "Bog-an-Lochan," "Nine Pint Coggie" and "Mr. J. Forbes," and an original, "Hull's Reel." John might not have gotten the golden throat of the other Rankins, but he easily makes up for it with his crackerjack musicianship.

"Lament of the Irish Immigrant" is a poignant, a capella solo about an Irish man whose wife died in childbirth and his sadness at leaving her grave and their memories behind to travel to better opportunities in America. The sparse liner notes don't identify which sister is singing so beautifully, and even an Internet search failed to turn up a name, but a Rankin fan named Kimberley identifies the singer as Raylene. She does a great job.

The album ends with a fun-filled "Jigging Medley." The set kicks off with a hungover-but-happy song, "Whiskey in a Cup," written by Raylene and sung as an a cappella chorus, before launching into some more lively tunes: "King George," "Old King's Reel," "King's Reel" and "Bodachan A'Mhirein." The final bit is an excellent example of "mouth music," or singing without words.

Since discovering the Rankins a year ago I've sung their praises to many, but the preponderance of country-style songs on Fare Thee Well Love and North Country prevented me from giving them my heartiest endorsement. I'm happy to say The Rankin Family doesn't have that problem, and anyone who can find a copy should snatch it up without delay.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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