It’s hard to believe that, as I write this, it’s been just over 10 years since I experienced the music of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island in its own environment, at the International Celtic Colours Festival in 2002. I wasn’t then and I’m not now any kind of authority on Celtic music, but I know what moves my soul and my feet. This gorgeous album Seinn by Mary Jane Lamond & Wendy MacIsaac transported me back to the community halls and concert venues, the vibrant autumn landscape, the tart maritime air and the hospitality of Cape Breton.
Lamond, possessed of a silken, supple alto, is one of the premier singers of Scots Gaelic in the world. Wendy MacIsaac, member of one of many prolific musical Cape Breton musical clans, is a fiddler, pianist and step-dancer. Both have won numerous awards and toured internationally. Though Wendy has often supported Mary Jane in her singing, Seinn (pronounced “shane”) is the first project they’ve done as a collaboration.
The album’s 12 songs more or less alternate between tune sets led by Wendy on fiddle and songs by Mary Jane. They are backed by a large cast of supporting musicians, sometimes just one or two at a time and sometimes in larger ensembles. The recording and production are absolutely wonderful, putting the vocals and fiddle of these two up front, sharp and clear; the sound has a bright gloss to it that succeeds in bringing forth the magic of the music without crossing the line into New Age Celtic.
The album’s liner notes are thorough, including an explanation of the provenance and meaning of the tracks, which is helpful in the case of the songs, all of which are in Scots Gaelic. However, Lamond is so adept at portraying the emotions of a song in her delivery that you’ll probably find you understand the feeling quite well, if not the actual words. To pick just two, it’s demonstrated quite well in the second track, “Air a’ Ghille Tha Mo Rùn / It Is the Lad That I Love,” a tender love song with Brad Davidge on guitar and David Milligan on piano, plus some subtle percussion, in addition to MacIsaac’s fiddle; and on the final track, “If You Were Mine,” a more upbeat love song that just brims with strong fiddling, confident singing, propulsive drumming, as you can see in this promotional video for the album, which features scenes from the recording of that song.
Very sly, putting what I consider the strongest track of a very strong list at the very end! Oh, and it kicks into a soaring, danceable trad tune “Drunken Landlady” after the song.
My other favorite tune is “Seudan a’ Chuain / Jewels of the Ocean”, a sweet and melodic waltz led off on low whistle by Matt MacIsaac, doubled by Wendy, and Cathy Porter on accordion; followed by a spry reel MacIsaac learned from Jerry Holland, with Matt on high whistle.
There are some very strong tune sets too, all of which feature MacIsaac’s superb and rapid bowing, which includes lots of triplet sixteenth notes. They include the opener “Yellow Coat,” the “Angus Blaise” suite which has six tunes, three traditional and three by Wendy, and featuring her cousin Ashley MacIsaac on exhuberent piano; “Seudan a’ Chuain / Jewels of the Ocean,” a sweet and melodic waltz led off on low whistle by Matt MacIsaac, doubled by Wendy, with Cathy Porter on accordion; followed by a spry reel learned from Jerry Holland, with Wendy on fiddle and Matt on high whistle; “Keeping Up With Calum,” with a club-like syncopated beat and electric bass guitar, inspired by Wendy’s toddler son; and “Boise Monsters,” two tunes, one by Ryan J. MacNeil and one by Wendy, with Wendy fiddle and foot percussion, and Tim Edey on superb guitar, accordion and bass! And yes, that’s Boise, Idaho. You’ll have to buy the album to get the story behind it.
I see I’ve left off at least one track that really caught my ear (easy to do on a CD so chockfull of great ones). “Hoireann ó Rathill iù ó” is a milling song, what I believe is called a waulking song in Scotland, with a strong backbeat (and some subtle percussion) that suggests the milling sounds. It’s paired with a traditional tune called “Mother’s Delight,” which features some nice almost jazzy improvisational interplay between Wendy’s fiddle and David Milligan on piano.
Really, there’s hardly a less-than-stellar moment on this album. Both Lamond and MacIsaac bring this music forth from deep in their souls, and they and their collaborators bring a great sense of fun and passion to it that comes across at every turn. Highly recommended.