Christina Smith & Jean Hewson,
Like Ducks!
(Borealis, 1998)

It was a song about eating a duck, bit by bit, which captured my ear.

Strangely, it only took one chance hearing of "The Mallard," as performed by Newfoundland folkies Christina Smith and Jean Hewson, and I knew I had to find the whole album. Appropriately, the CD in question is titled Like Ducks! -- a colloquial phrase which, in Newfoundland, expresses scornful disbelief.

And the track which first drew me in? "The Mallard" is a traditional song which, like "Rattlin' Bog" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas," grows with every verse. By song's end, the poor fowl has been completely and truly eaten, from wingtip to toe. It's sung tongue-twisterly by Hewson over Smith's baroque-flavored cello, and there are enough variations in the presentation that it never gets dull as the menu increases.

And, fortunately, Hewson and Smith prove not to be a one-trick pony. The album is filled with tunes intended to help preserve the traditions of the musicians' native Newfoundland -- a proud region which, like Nova Scotia, has been heavily influenced by the musical influences of its Scots-Irish settlers.

The album focuses on the work of the two Canadian ladies. Hewson does the singing and plays guitars while Smith plays fiddle, cello and viola da gambas, and provides backing vocals. They're joined by an assortment of 12 guest musicians, providing everything from Jeremy Bishop's digeridoo and conga to Rory McLeod's harmonica.

There's a nice selection of instrumentals here, most featuring Smith's fine fiddling. "Jacob's Jig" is a fine example of powerful fiddle work, nicely supported by Hewson's guitar; for "Up the Hills of Down," they add Frank Maher on button accordion, Gerry Strong on the tin whistle and Fergus O'Byrne on bodhran for an even fuller sound.

"Waltz in the House" blends fiddle, cello and guitar for a lovely danceable tune. "Scotty Macmillan's G Minor Jig," a Hewson original, spotlights guitars instead of the fiddle, and it's a lively, well-played track. Perhaps my favorite instrumental track is the album opener, "Sound Symposium Jig/Steve Neary's Waiting for This," which insists that listeners move to the music. Besides driving fiddle and guitar work from Smith and Hewson, the tune benefits from Wade Pinhorn's bass and Jeremy Bishop's digeridoo and conga.

But the songs seem to dominate the album, and rightly so. Hewson has a grand voice for this kind of singing, and Smith has a great sense for how much background, harmony and countermelody to impose without ever exceeding her bounds.

A standout is Hewson's "Broken Down Girl," a woeful song about a woman's life wrecked by alcohol. Hewson leads the way, but she's joined on the choruses by an excellent all-female chorus (Vonnie Barron, Anita Best, Jennifer Doyle, Amanda Tulk and Stephanie Whitehead). It's here, too, that Rory McLeod's harmonica competes with Smith's fiddle to great effect.

Hewson's a capella introduction to "Lady in the East" is striking; guitar, fiddle and cello lines add gorgeous levels to the traditional love ballad. Smith adds a brash layer of fiddle to Hewson's rollicking "Liar's Song." Then the duo changes pace for a slow, sad, stunning rendition of the Hank Williams classic, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."

Sandy Morris plays excellent fingerpicking guitar along with Smith's cello while Hewson sings the traditional ballad "The Pride of the Season." Another traditional song, "Jolly Jack Tar," shows how a young man's deception can lead to marriage.

Newfoundland's musical tradition is, without a doubt, worth preserving. With Christina Smith and Jean Hewson on the job, we needn't worry that it'll be done right.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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