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House of Hamill: Wide Awake
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/8/2016)
Since the emergence of the Chieftains and their authentic approach to Irish and Celtic music, there have been groups running the full spectrum from very traditional acoustic bands, to groups who do mainly traditional music with some electric instrumentation, to full-blown rock bands who incorporate some Celtic influence into their music. This week we have a nice new album that is somewhere in the spectrum between Celtic and rock, and manages to do both rather well. It’s by a Philadelphia-area duo who call themselves House of Hamill, named after an Irish tune they played when they first got together. Their album is called Wide Awake.
The two members of House of Hamill are active in other Celtic and rock bands. Rose Baldino is part of the traditional Celtic group Burning Bridget Cleary. Brian Buchanan, originally from Canada, has been a member of Enter the Haggis, one of the more popular Celtic rock bands on the festival circuit. Both Buchanan and Baldino are fiddle players with classical training, and are not afraid to demonstrate their eclecticism. The pair met backstage ten years ago at a show in rural Pennsylvania when their groups were sharing a billing at a concert. They came in contact with each other over the months as they crossed paths several times on the folk and Celtic festival scene. One night in 2014 at a folk music conference, two of the members of Burning Bridget Cleary were unable to make an appearance due to their flight being canceled. So Ms. Baldino asked Buchanan to sit in, and they quickly hit it off musically, playing for an hour that night with practically no advance rehearsal together. After that, they decided to make a more formal musical association, and as mentioned chose the name House of Hamill as one of the first tunes Ms. Baldino taught Buchanan when they started performing together.
Wide Awake is their debut album, and it spans a rather wide spectrum between Celtic and rock. Both members are fans of Radiohead, so some of that influence can be heard. Buchanan, in addition to his fiddle and vocals, serves as multi-instrumentalist on this self-produced album, playing electric and acoustic guitar and keyboards. On Wide Awake, they are joined by additional musicians, including bassist Chico Huff, who has previously collaborated with Burning Bridget Cleary, and drummer Bruce McCarthy, who interestingly, performed his drum parts in a studio in Canada. There is a fair amount of original material. Ironically, the most-traditional-sounding pieces on the album are the original instrumentals, but they also do some straight-out rock tunes with Buchanan’s electric guitar cranked up practically to punk-rock levels at times, while Ms Baldino’s fiddle can fit in with the energy level. Making the electric material more interesting, it’s sometimes at an art-rock level of musical sophistication.
Leading off is an instrumental piece called The Pinnacle, a traditional-style medley of three jigs, all original compositions. Though the fiddles dominate, it definitely has a rock flavor with the drums and bass. The compositions are quite good and provide a nice flow from one to another. <<>>
That leads into The Nightmare, one of the rock tunes, with lyrics to match the title. But there is still some Celtic influence from the fiddle parts. <<>>
One of the better original rock tunes on the album called Memory, whose lyrics are about being happy about a romantic breakup, while the musical aspect shows originality and compositional sophistication. <<>>
On the other hand House of Hamill goes all-out-rock on a piece called Daydream which unfortunately is permeated with contemporary pop cliches, such as the Coldplay-styled loud-section. <<>>
The group makes up for that with another traditional-style medley of instrumental pieces called Guns of the Magnificent Seven, which in this case consists of mostly traditional material. Ms. Baldino’s fiddle work is impressive. <<>>
The group ventures successfully into something close to art rock on a track called Flashback with the rock electric sound but it’s an interesting composition with a complicated rhythmic structure. <<>>
Another highlight of the album is the traditional piece Son Ar Rost, a plaintive -sounding instrumental played mainly on the two fiddles throughout with some overdubbing. <<>>
The album ends with another of its more memorable tracks, an imaginative instrumental arrangement of the Nirvana tune Heart Shaped Box, dominated by the fiddles. <<>>
Wide Awake, the new debut album by the Philadelphia-area duo House of Hamill is a worthwhile addition to the Celtic-rock fusion canon. With both key members being fiddle players, the Celtic influence can still be heard no matter how hard the band rocks out, and when they do traditional-sounding material, the results are outstanding. The album’s music spans the full range from the very electric and rock-oriented to the acoustic, with some of the most authentic-sounding material being original compositions. Once in a while, I think they try a little too hard to sound like a rock band, but for the most part, they excel at just about every part of the Celtic-to-rock spectrum on the album. The added musicians fill out the sound and give the duo more of a band texture on the record.
Our grade for sonic quality is about an A-minus. The sound is generally clean, and the studio effects on the instruments are tastefully handled. But I can’t give it a full grade “A” because of the typical over-used compression, robbing the music of dynamic range in the blind pursuit of artificial loudness.
There have been quite a few Celtic-rock groups over the years, ranging from bands like the Pogues to Shooglenifty to Brian Buchanan’s band Enter the Haggis. Buchanan and his colleague Rose Baldino in their collaboration House of Hamill, on their debut album, have already shown themselves to one of the best such hybrids in recent years.
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