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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1525

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Capercaillie: Roses and Tears
by George Graham

(Compass 4477 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/21/2008)

The revival of Celtic music, which began more or less in the 1970s with the Chieftains, shows no signs of abating. Many performers of different generations and from different countries continue to release worthwhile new recordings. And the scene has also been showing a good deal of eclecticism, with traditional music mixed with all manner of styles, from rock to hip-hop to Salsa.

This week we have a new release from one of the best-known long-running bands from Scotland, Capercaillie. Their new CD is called Roses and Tears.

Named after a species of bird, Capercaillie has been together for more than 20 years. During that time they have helped expand the audience for Celtic music beyond the hard-core traditionalists. In the course of their career they have had cumulative album sales of over one million worldwide and were also featured in the popular film Rob Roy. The group's personnel has varied somewhat, but its founders were keyboard man Donald Shaw, and vocalist Karen Matheson who has become respected so much in the UK that she was awarded an Order of the British Empire title.

The latest incarnation of the Capercaillie is up to eight members, with the usual combination of guitars, pipes, whistles, fiddle, percussion and bass. Donald Shaw came from a traditional folk background, with accordion being his first instrument, and on which he won various honors, including the All-Britain accordion championship. But his musical interests have been wide ranging -- he won the accordion competition by playing a Paganini classical piece. He has been involved extensively in creating music for films, and not surprisingly, that broad musical approach has found its way into Capercaillie's music. It's interesting that while many of the Irish-based Celtic groups take a fairly traditional direction with the music, there are several Scottish bands who have been going off in very non-traditional trajectories, including Shooglenifty, Mouth Music and their original vocalist Talitha MacKenzie, and the highly unlikely fusion in the appropriately-named band Salsa Celtica.

In listening to the new Capercaillie album, it occurred to me that this particular lineup of the group reminded me of a traditional Celtic band into which a jazz piano trio has been dropped. Shaw also often uses Rhodes or Wulitzer electric pianos which evoke some of the fusion jazz of the 1970s. He also uses subtle and not-so subtle jazz techniques like a bit of swing in the rhythm, more complex rhythmic figures, chord substitutions, and general musical sophistication that is not usually a part of traditional Celtic music. Shaw, bassist Ewan Vernal and drummer Che Beresford sound as if they might be as comfortable playing Duke Ellington as the traditional material. They also draw on the similarities between the rhythms of funk music and some of the figures of jigs and reels.

The material on the CD includes some fairly newly discovered traditional songs, found in the archive of Gaelic songs at the School of Scottish studies. Of the vocal pieces on the album, the majority are sung in Gaelic. Unfortunately, except for English listings of the titles, the translations of the lyrics are not provided in the CD's package.

Opening is a piece typical of the band's eclectic sound, Him Bo which translates as "I am in Distress." The band gives the song a distinctly funky rhythmic approach. <<>>

The following track, whose title is translated as The Stormy Voyage, is also given an interesting rhythmic transformation, while Ms. Matheson and the Celtic contingent of the band evoke the traditional aspect. <<>> In the second section, the traditional jig is spun into a jazz waltz. <<>>

One of two songs sung in English is Don't You Go, by the long-time English folk artist John Martyn. It's an anti-war song sung from the standpoint of a mother pleading with her son not to go off to war. <<>>

A bit more traditional in sound is a medley of jigs called The Aphrodisiac. It's two traditional pieces, plus an original by Shaw. It's a great showcase for the instrumental virtuosity in the band. <<>>

There's a Scottish tradition of so called "waulking" songs, sung by women workers processing fabric. A medley called Barra Clapping Song incorporates some of that, again mixing with rhythmic touches of funk. It's a particularly appealing piece. <<>>

The more mellow side of the band comes out on the song whose Gaelic title translates as I Sing the Praises of the Brave Lads. Michael McGoldrick's Uillean pipes give the song an Irish sound. <<>>

The other song in English is an original by keyboard man Donald Shaw. Soldier Boy also considers war and peace, and contains the lyrics line that the band used as CD title. <<>>

The CD's lengthiest track is another impressive medley of instrumentals, called The Rose Cottage Reels, consisting of one traditional tune and three originals by Shaw. I suppose you could say that it's as close as you can come to a Celtic jam band. <<>>

Roses and Tears, the new CD from the long-running Scottish band Capercaillie, is an outstanding recording that captures both the traditional aspects of the music, including the great majority of the lyrics being in Gaelic, with perhaps a bit wider-ranging sense of musical eclecticism than previously with the band. The expanded personnel -- eight members is large by Celtic standards -- and founder Donald Shaw's increasingly jazzy tendencies add to the music's breadth of sound and style. Karen Matheson's vocals are again transcendent, making for wonderfully engaging music, even when one has no idea of what she is singing about. And that is perhaps the one complaint I would have about the CD -- the lack of translations of the actual lyrics, more than just the song titles.

Sonically, Roses and Tears gets one of my relatively rare grade A's. There is good clarity and warmth to the sound, and the recording has relatively little volume compression. You may have to turn up the volume a bit compared to most of today's totally maxed out super-compressed CDs, but you'll be rewarded by music that can ebb and flow.

Over two decades Capercaillie have remained one of the most popular and respected Celtic bands. Their new CD branches out some in sound and influences, which might raise some eyebrows, but they do it without artistic compromise, and further elevate the standard in the lively Celtic scene.

(c) Copyright 2008 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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