All right, so it's a little disconcerting at first to hear a Scottish band from the Isle of Bute perform a song about following the buffalo, but there's something about Rise's opening track that draws my attention and makes me want to hear more. Starting with what almost sounds like pipes leading into acoustic guitars and Debbie Dawson's gentle vocals, "Buffalo Song" doesn't initially sound as if it's going to champion Native Americans. The electric guitar and keyboards that crescendo later help keep the song from being a "touchy-feely" new age hit; instead, there's an earnest appeal in both the music and lyrics.
The debut album from Rise, Uncertain Wonders, contains other similar surprises. On one hand, they play pop songs that could come from any Celtic roots-type band striving to gain a larger audience. "Thinking About You" and "It Doesn't Matter" fit that pedigree to the teeth. While Dawson's vocals are fetching, these songs simply are typical love ballads begging to hit the charts and take this group, a la Ireland's The Corrs, to pop success. However, on the other hand, once Rise surpasses the desire for major marketability that makes them sound like too many other bands, then they are able to show off more of their own skills.
One of their strengths is how they are able to combine traditional material with more contemporary interpretations. "Time and Tide" has the feel of a Burns ballad, but it's actually their own adaptation borrowed from various sources, Burns among them. Multi-instrumentalist Gerry Geoghegan (he's credited with guitars, sax, keyboards and bodhran) performs a duet with lead vocalist Dawson against keyboards masquerading as pipes in a haunting, effective performance. On "Lomond," they've taken a traditional song that often seems hackneyed nowadays, and strived to make it feel original and accessible again. The gentle, rhythmic acoustic guitar between verses helps attain that mood, and Geoghegan's vocals sound authentic and honest.
Probably the strongest song on the disc is "Cold Glencoe," an original song made to sound traditional. The penultimate song on the album, it echoes the feelings of slaughtered innocents in "Buffalo Song." Instead of Native Americans massacred by "strange men from a stranger land," here it's the Glencoe massacre from the Scottish highlands, as manipulated by King William of Orange. Narrated by one of the soldiers who killed his own countrymen ("Know us by our hearts, know us by our shame/Know us by the part -- we played in William's game"), he vividly describes the massacre (sung again by Geoghegan) and the guilt he and his fellow executors felt.
While thematically it might make sense to close the album with a cover of John Lennon's "Imagine," it seems a let down and just a little bit too planned after the bold resonance of "Cold Glencoe." It makes me wonder if perhaps "Maybe We" or "True Love's Eyes," both their own compositions, might make a more effective closing number. The final measures of "Maybe We" have a feeling of closure to them, and "True Love's Eyes," with a traditional Celtic feel to the music, albeit with updated guitars, sax and keyboards, is about being on the losing side of a war.
Scottish folk rock tinged with pop sounds would have to be the niche this band falls under; but as musicians, they themselves sound stronger and more distinct when they lean further towards the folk side of the scale.
[ by Ellen Rawson ]