Hollie Smith,
Light from a Distant Shore
(Etherean, 1999)

"Gone," the first track off Hollie Smith's debut album Light from a Distant Shore, has Top 40 potential. And I mean that in a good way.

I'm a little skeptical of the Celtic-pop blends which are flooding the market these days, but Smith -- a 16-year-old songstress from New Zealand -- managed to blow me away from the beginning of the CD. "Gone," by Smith's producer and primary backing instrumentalist, Steve McDonald, is unremarkable in its lovelorn lyrics, but the power of Smith's vocals, the polish of the song's arrangement and production, and the Celtic flair of the fiddle background and interlude (performed by Jessica Hinden) pulled me in the way Celtic-pop rarely does.

Seven of the twelve songs here are McDonald originals, and most of those contain fairly standard lyrics dealing with love and heartbreak. They're good but not exceptional; it's the musical arrangement and Smith's presentation which kept me hitting the repeat button on my stereo. "Gone" is easily my favorite of the McDonald songs; other stand-outs include "The World I Know," "Fallen Flowers" and the title track, "Light from a Distant Shore."

Among the traditional songs is "Fields of Athenry," a stirring arrangement of the lament of sundered lovers featuring shared vocals by Smith and McDonald. The resulting duet is haunting. Smith gives a beautiful treatment to "Skye Boat Song," with a whispered chorus which could have come across as cheesy but actually adds to the song's moving air. For "Amazing Grace," Smith sings in several layers, creating her own gospel choir, while McDonald lays down an atypical percussion line and bagpipes skirl faintly in the background. Other traditionals are "An Eriskay Love Lilt" and the bouncy "Rowan Tree," with a minor cast to the chorus of the latter which nicely accents its melody.

The overall CD experience is further enhanced by McDonald's arrangements, which employ the violin (Michael Hunter), cello (Rachael Johnstone) and oboe (Vanessa Magowan) to gorgeous effect. Eric Thomas plays bodhran, and Martin Wynch supplies acoustic guitar tracks; otherwise, the sound is filled out primarily by McDonald's keyboards and percussion.

Smith is only 16 years old, but this is no Britney Spears clone, appealing to the seething teen masses with bubblegum lyrics and dance moves. Her voice is strong, dusky and sensual, and her performance appeals to a more mature class of listener. I expect to hear a lot more from her in the future.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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