Dear reader, get yourself a comfy seat, a nice slice of Irish barmbrack, and a good glass of fine Irish whiskey, ’cause this review may take a while. Analysing
Tir Nan Og‘s
fifth album Sing, Ye Bastards! left me with five pages of notes and an instant urge to tell you all about it. For those of you who want to have dinner early, here is the short version: if you like good old Irish party folk with a cool stadium rock production, this is your CD. Get your best boots on, finish your Irish stew, make sure you get yourself to the nearest pub, and party it down till the break of dawn. (Or all the booze is gone, whichever comes first).
So, now that the warning is out, I can go all nerdy on this CD without feeling guilty about it. After their strong 2018 album From The Gallows, Matze (violin, nyckelharpa), Sarah (flute, vocals), Joggl (four-string electric bass), Robert (guitar, vocals), Andi (whistles, pipes, vocals) and Volker (drums, bodhrán) have released yet another hit album, full of weird hooks, cool riffs, and groovy breaks bound to give you the best evening you’ve had in a long time!
Now I do realize that names like Matze, Joggl, and Volker don’t sound particularly Irish, and you would be right in that assumption. Tir Nan Og is a Bavarian band, but I didn’t really notice. “Cool Irish band,” it says in my first notes: “Is that female vocalist American?”.
No rest for the listener
Not surprising because Sing Ye Bastards! feels Irish from the very first note played. A fast, catchy violin riff starts it all, a first drum break follows within seconds, effortlessly flowing into a catchy verse with an added whistle for some bonus Irish cheer. The chorus is an instant sing-along affair that then flows into a short violin solo with groovy bass to keep your feet moving. Back is the drum break, some first epic female backing vocal, it’s all there…, and we are only 90 seconds in the song. Damn, this band is something else! They throw all their strengths at you, and almost all at once. Strong male and female vocals, more musical twists in one song than you would normally hear on a whole album, even a 10-second drum solo towards the end, and we are still only talking about the first song on the album! “God almighty, have mercy on our souls” the band sings. “God almighty, have mercy on our hearts” I say. This is something else!
The official video for Fear Gorta
For a wee moment, I think I will be able to catch my breath on the second song: Last Order. That thought only lasts for the slow acapella intro Tir Nan Og sing. After that the drums, bass, and bagpipes take control of my feet again, and of I whizzing go. Someone tell the devil and ‘mye’ wife that they’ll have to wait a while, pour me another pint, and let me dance!! This stuff is awesome! The only moments you are allowed to catch your breath are the moments of silence separating the songs from each other.
Ok! Hold on! Time to get out of the Maelstrom, to swallow a Green Pill, slow down, and get some sense out of myself.
Soooo, to say something sensible: Tir Nan Og plays a very catchy version of punky Irish folk-rock. Extremely catchy actually. The cool thing is that they do that mostly acoustically. No distorted guitars, no screaming vocals, no nothing of that. Just the power of good old acoustic instruments, strong vocals, a slick production, and some darned good songwriting. Let’s start with that last bit first as it is the stand-out thing in my opinion. Tir Nan Og have a knack for surprising you, every 20 seconds it seems. Twists, breaks, solos, harmonies, they play with it as if they were a prog band. Fear Gorta, Last Order, Maelstrom, the whole album is just full with them, making this a highly entertaining album.
Tir Nan Og, a steaming folk band
So what are we talking about style-wise? Again, Tir Nan Og go for variety. Fear Gorta and Last Order are steaming acoustic party punk-folk songs, Maelstrom reminds me of the latest
album, especially in the vocals. Highlight in this song is Matze’s furious violin solo. I’m pretty sure sparks were coming off his strings when he played that in the studio. What I also love are the harmonies. The three voices of Robert, Sarah and Andi fit nicely together giving the music even more power, but that violin solo…darn, that one is addictive!
The Wanderings Of Oisin gives a more poppy feel to Tir Nan Og’s folk-punk. The intro keeps reminding me of something, but I couldn’t tell you what it is. It doesn’t matter. Again the whole song is catchy as hell. Especially the flute melody Sarah treats us with. Another strong part of Tir Nan Og’s sound is Joggl’s bass playing, not only on this song but over the whole album. I love the groove he adds to the songs. It gives Tir Nan Og’s music even more power, and a lot more dance credibility. Getting back to The Wanderings of Oisin; the chorus at the very end of this song, featuring Sarah on vocals, is one of those many cool curveballs the band constantly throws at you, as is the surprising acapella end.
With the song Green Pill, the feel of the music starts to shift from acoustic punk-folk towards folk-rock, but still with a strong Irish flavour to it. Let’s call it a nice blend of German punk-rockers
and our own
A special mention has to go to Sarah’s whistle solo halfway through the song and the violin finishing it all off weaving in another famous tune. [Editors note: That would be Cooley’s Reel]
We’ve Been Everywhere has that same rock anthem feel to it. A big part of that can be attributed to the production. Where the previous album, From The Gallows (2018), still had a rougher, more punky feel to it, the production of Sing, Ye bastard! is fuller, rounder; there are more layers in the vocals, more effects; the bass and drums have more ‘oomph’. it all adds up towards a strong stadium rock feel which I love. I also love the
“weird” Al Yankovic
rap-part Andi pulls out of the bag in this song, soon to be followed by what seems to be a guest appearance of the
Red Hot Chilli Pipers.
Go Andi, go Andi!!!
One song further and we go Greek, combined with a fun bit of German Hoompha folk for good measure. There are many bands that say they have no limits when writing music. Tir Nan Og clearly wants to take that statement one step further! So Sláinthe is a mix of Greek, Irish, and German influences. Next song I Sold My Soul starts with a bagpipe riff that could easily have been written by
Iain Alexander Marr. The song itself is a catchy Pyrolysis-type folk-rock anthem.
The second single: I sold My Soul
On Stone Cold Heart Sarah gets to show off her vocal talents. Both she and Robert have big voices that can easily hold their own against the powerhouse folk the band is playing. I’m just loving all of this, song after song. Every song has its own cool moment, its own cool twist. Listen to those driving drums in Stone Cold Heart. If you didn’t hear those folky whistles and violin tunes it could just as well be a drum fill by funk-rockers
Especially when Joggl joins in on his electric bass to “funk” everything up even more; one of the few moments the band goes into a distorted overdrive. Sarah’s strong vocals finish this power ballad perfectly.
Sea of Sorrow is the first real moment of peace on Sing, Ye bastard!. An acoustic ballad that could easily be found on a
album, with Robert taking on the role of George Kooymans. I’m loving Robert’s vocals throughout the whole album. Just like Sarah, he has the perfect voice for this band. Strong, powerful, with just the right amount of hoarseness, and capable of giving every song the colour it needs. May I also highlight the harmonies that brighten up the whole album? They pop up all over the place, but the most beautiful one has to be the ending of Sea Of Sorrow. Goosebumps.
The surpises keep on coming
Tir Nan Og are stíll not done surprising me. The Song Remains almost starts like a soundtrack, quickly flowing into something I can only describe as symphonic prog-folk with a touch of theatre in it. The call and response singing lines at 1:34 even remind me of
Are there no limits to the things this band will include in their music?!?!?! Speaking of Ayreon, I could swear the flute solo following after that could have been played by
Thijs van Leer
one of the prominent guest musicians on Ayreon’s The Electric Castle.
I think by now it’s clear Tir Nan Og are not ‘just’ a punky acoustic folk band. Nope, this is a full-grown folk-rock unit. Inventive in their songwriting, cheeky in every note they play, with a strong link to their Irish folk roots…
The final twist
Now we get to a fun moment. First I’ll let you read the original text I wrote to end this review:
‘…with a strong link to their folk roots. The
/Harmony Glen-like power ballad O’Hanlan’s Last Words for instance gives you clear proof of that. What a band…WHAT A BAND!!
And this is the final twist the band threw at me, it is Robert writing me in response of the review:
‘O’Hanlon’s Last Words was actually performed by Harmony Glen as a guest track on this CD. (A cover of a song from our last CD).
That would explain why I thought it sounded a lot like Harmony Glen yes (blushes). And with all of you laughing it is time to round up this review.
It is high time for CeltCast to host their own St. Patrick’s day folk-rock concert. I say put Tir Nan Og top of the bill, co-headlining with Harmony Glen of course, and Pyrolysis as support act. Now that would be an evening! Can I already reserve my tickets!? Pretty please!?
Tir Nan Og performing live at Folk Am Neckar (2019)
Cover art: Santana Raus: Santichan illustration
pictures: Andi Fingas
Picture editing: Andre Freitag
Shane Ó Fearghail – Born From Tradition (2020)
The first reviews of 2022 seem to have a common theme: these are the reviews of the golden voices. Look at the list:
Morten Alfred Høirup,
Gillian Frame and
they all released stunning albums highlighting their unique vocal talents. In this review we continue this theme as
Shane Ó Fearghail
is another one blessed with a golden voice.
Shane is a singer-songwriter, born in Dublin but now living in Vienna. He has released 3 albums until now: The Watcher & The comet (2009), Everything You Need (2012) and They Might See Dolphins (2016). His latest full-length album is called Born From Tradition, and it is his most intimate album by far.
Before I go deeper into Born From Tradition I want to dive into Shane’s back catalogue a bit. For the most part, there isn’t a note of folk to be heard. But I decided to ignore that small fact, as I loved what I was hearing. His first album, The Watcher & The Comet, is an indie-pop pearl. it contains alternative pop songs, reminding me of bands like
The Blue Aeroplanes,
and especially Crowded House,
but in this case sung by the singer-songwriter nephew of Jim Diamond (
or Feargal Sharkey (
). Songs like Round The Hardway; All Your Features; the power ballad Satellite (with a cool touch of
over it); Grace (with a stroke of
); actually the whole album is a must-have for fans of this style of music. Songs like Jesus I can Try; Mermaid (The Atlantean lullaby); and The Hero Of Waterloo showcase Shane’s love for storytelling ballads, something I will come back to later.
As an ’80s teen there is another thing I love about The Watcher & The Comet, its distinctive 80’s guitar sound. Listening to Shane’s first album makes me want to grab an old
or early Coldplay LP just to stay in the same vibe. Especially Mermaid (The Atlantean Lullaby) is a beautiful cross between Crowded House and Coldplay.
That specific 80’s sound is almost gone on the follow-up albums: Everything You Need Is Here (2012) and They Might See Dolphins (2016). Instead, we hear a cleaner sound, more in the direction of
with occasional string sections that seem to come straight from a later
album. Just listen to Who Came First, (the first song on Everything You Need Is Here) and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
You will hear the first folk influences pop up in songs like Hey Little Sister and It’s Up To You on Everything You Need Is Here. The folk influences become even more apparent on the album They Might See Dolphins. Just listen to Read Between The Lines, Chalk, but especially Faerie Tree (hello
and you will hear the Irish folk heritage clearly shining through.
BORN FROM TRADITION; A SINGER-SONGWRITER BALLADEER
Having said that, it is still a big step from the first three albums with their alternative band sound to the solo singer-songwriting balladeer Shane becomes on Born From Tradition. So I had to ask about it: What made him venture into his Irish musical heritage?
– ‘Well it starts with my granny Olive. She was a real Dubliner, a great woman from an older world. Irish and yet distinctly Dublin. The old songs and stories were part of her world and that tradition was passed on to us thankfully.
Born From Tradition, for now, is the closest I will get to the music I was reared on; the songs I learned and sang along to at family sessions; in my granny’s house in Dublin. The album, for me, is the proverbial salmon returning home to the safety of deep rock pools where it was born. Living away from Ireland during this pandemic, the songs on this album brought Ireland home to me. They are a celebration of my ballad background, my family, and our culture.’
I said in the intro that Shane has a love for storytelling ballads. Well, the Irish balladeer steps forward right away in the opening song I like It When You Try. Lyrics like: ‘We can talk about anything, cars, and cigarettes, but you don’t smoke and I don’t drive’ are typical singer-songwriter lines. Sometimes observative, sometimes personal, sometimes tongue in cheek, and effortlessly shifting from one to the other with every well-placed word. Lyrics like: ‘Sitting here looking for someplace to find; a place in myself where I have peace of mind; looking at faces for places to see; the wind in my hair; the breeze blowing easy’ (Roll On The Wind) remind me of
and his ability to weave sentences together in exactly the same way as Shane does.
Lyrics were always important to Shane, but on Born From Tradition, they come to the foreground even more. That is because the well-arranged pop sound of the earlier records is broken down to a single acoustic guitar melody. A lone violin, mandolin, accordion, or recorder is carefully placed in the music as if they are delicately illustrating the lyrics.
By the time I reach the third song Reynardine it is clear Shane O’Fearghail’s voice is the main feature on Born From Tradition. His melancholic voice is smooth as silk with a slightly hoarse finish, extremely pleasant to the ear. Combine that with his charming Irish accent and a strong vibrato that he uses to perfection to enhance the melancholic, nostalgic feel of the songs and it is clear why I see his voice as the highlight of Born Of Tradition. The musical arrangements make his voice shine even more. The music is soft, gentle, delicate, and never overpowering the voice. Our Ilona called it the “perfect hammock music” and I could not agree more.
Reynardine is the first of the traditional songs Shane selected for Born From Tradition. It is a song about a werefox luring beautiful women to an unknown fate. This type of historic folk ballad fits perfectly with the material by Shane’s own hand. As do the touching lyrics of Green Fields Of France or the unofficial anthem of Dublin, the folk ballad Molly Malone, clear links to granny Olive and the Dublin she knew. Shane goes even deeper into his Irish heritage with the Gaelic songs Trasna Na Gcianta and Ná Bí Buartha, songs he wrote together with Róisín Ní Bhriain, a friend of his.
FINDING THE MAGIC WITHIN
Now I have to admit, listening to this album I went through three phases. At first, I fell in love with Shane’s voice. Head over heels actually. How could I not with these lovely songs oozing out of my speakers, filling ymy room with a soft blanket of soothing goodness. But after a while I found myself losing a bit of concentration. The songs, as beautiful as they all are individually, seemed to become one gentle sweet sound that lasted the whole album. I was missing a moment of contrast, like a song similar to Faerie Tree from his previous album, just to shake things up a bit.
But then came phase three (!), and with it the true magic of Born From Tradition.
As I started diving into the lyrics the time suddenly flew by. Gone was my wish for contrast. Reading the lyrics Shane wrote, looking up the history behind the traditional songs he chose, made me realize Born From Tradition sounds exactly as it should. Shane put every side of himself into this record. Not only his memories of granny Olive and her Dublin; but also his respect for his Irish heritage; his personal views on the crazy world around us. All of a sudden I did recognize the build-up of this record. Not a build-up in the music as I was expecting, no, it was there in the themes Shane selected.
The first songs I Like It When You Try and Roll On The Wind are melancholic love ballads as only the Irish can sing them, full of longing for a lost love and the green fields of home.
With Reynardine, Trasna Na Gcianta, The Green Fields Of France, Molly Malone, and Ná Bí Buartha Shane pays homage to his Irish heritage. On the last bit of the album, the socially critical singer-songwriter comes out. It starts with Anyway, arguably the most beautiful ballad on Born Of Tradition. Sharp, perfectly sung, eenunciating e-ve-ry single word. I can only describe it as singer-songwriter magic. The lyrics are so strong: ‘Seáni was a poor one; grew up on a steel spoon; looking for a way out…‘ ‘turns out he’s the lucky one; he’s not the friend of a pistol or the bullet from a gun…‘ These words make my arm hairs stand on end. The poignant guitar melody makes it even better. What a song. It is followed by another razor-sharp singer-songwriter gemstone: New England. The message in this song is even stronger than in Anyway. So strong even that it will go too far to discuss in this review, instead I’ll just leave a link here to a blog Shane wrote about this song.
The last song on Born From Tradition ends the album as if it was a movie score. Raglan Road is the perfect end score to Born From Tradition. An odd comparison I know, but I can’t find a better one to explain it. It is just the twisted way my musical mind works I guess.
All in all Born from Tradition is a beautiful album with many interesting layers. A singer-songwriters delight. And the good news is, there is more to come.
On Bandcamp Shane already released an EP called Acoustic. According to Shane: ‘A collection of acoustic demo’s from previous albums or songs that are coming down the tracks. As for a follow-up on Born from Tradition: -‘I will do a follow-up Irish album soon, with more songs and Irish ballads. But that is next year or the year after. For now, I am concentrating on a new album which will be an uptempo Irish Appalachian affair. Due for a summer release 2022.
Well, speaking for myself, I can’t wait!
Cover art: Sabine Mann | sabinemann.Design
Picture: Sabine Mann
Mia Guldhammer & Morten Alfred Høirup – Tral, Tråd & Traditioner (2021) Review
In every scene you have certain people who seem to part of every band you know. In Holland the names Lies Sommer and Sophie Zaaijer come to mind. In Germany it’s
Fabi, and in Denmark, obviously, one of them is
At CeltCast, Mia is mostly known as the leading lady of the medieval folk band
but she also is the lead singer of the ‘electrophonic folk orchestra‘
and she teamed up with the French folk band
Dour/Le Pottier Quartet
(Not to be confused by the Norse jazz-pop band with the same name) a group that mixes Scandinavian folk vocals with a classical chamber music feel and a lovely Eastern European improvisation style. (find a link to a concert of them
Mia’s latest collaboration is with Danish folk guitarist and singer
Morten Alfred Høirup
and as always, the result is something special.
Before we dive into Tral, Tråd & Traditioner let’s further introduce Morten Alfred Høirup. Just like Mia, this composer, guitar player, singer, and folk radio DJ is a well-known face in the Danish folk scene, but has also built up a following in the American roots music scene. He is, or has been, a member of several folk groups, some more traditional Danish, some more adventures, mixing 50’s style swing with folk, explaining Morten Alfred’s popularity in the American roots scene. I’ll start with the more traditional groups first. Both are trios that play melodic accordion-oriented Danish balfolk. We have
the Gangspil trio
(2012 – 2017) and
trio Jensen, Bugge & Høirup
(still active). The Jensen, Brugge & Høirup trio feels the most traditional of the two I listened to. The Gangspil trio sounds a bit lighter, leaning slightly less on the distinctive sound of the accordion, but both are nice balfolk albums.
Two sides Morten Alfred’s music
Then there is Morten Alfred’s swing-jazz/ Scandinavian folk side. Again I found two bands on Spotify:
is the more laid-back, easy listening of the two. The other, the
American Café Orchestra,
will challenge the listener a lot more. The basis is also laid-back swing folk, but quite often it has a hidden sting: an experimental approach that will challenge the listener. Songs like Rain, Egyptian Domino Dance, or Grey Brothers’ Holiday are well worth checking out for the more adventurous folk fan.
Morten Alfred has also been involved in bands I didn’t find on Spotify, such as the duo
Fin Alfred & Morten Alfred
with his father. Furthermore, he forms a duo with American Café Orchestra fiddler
and he has been playing in the Danish fiddle and guitar duo,
Haugaard & Høirup
from 1998 till 2008.
So after this impressive introduction, the big question is: what will the partnership with Mia Guldhammer bring? A traditional Danish accordion sound or something more in the direction of the intriguing folk jazz bands Morten Alfred is part of?
The first notes of Brudegaverne/Lybekkeren/Altergang make me say traditional, but without the accordion. The song is upbeat, and strong in its simplicity. A voice and a guitar, that is ALL you get here -OK, and a choir joining in at the chorus but that’s just a ‘minor’detail-. You don’t need much more anyway. Mia and Morten fill up the whole room perfectly, their voices are a match made in heaven, the rhythm guitar is exquisite, and that choir is pure genius.
The quality of Mia’s voice is well known, but Morten Alfred has a voice that easily equals hers. He proves so on Sorgen/Håbets Dans. Strangely enough, he rarely sings in any of the bands I listened to while doing my research, so some may be surprised to hear the quality of his voice. Just like Mia, Morten Alfred has an accomplished, warm, and soothing voice. A pleasure to listen to. The harmonies he and Mia sing together on Sorgen/Håbets Dans are like a warm blanket. Pure bliss. And the lilting at the end of the song feels like vanilla ice on a hot chocolate cake. So smooth.
I’m also glad that Morten Alfred’s rhythm guitar playing is one of the features of this album. The part of the rhythm guitar is quite often overlooked, overshadowed by the soloists, but it is such an important part of a band. Highlighted as it is on this album you can hear how Morten Alfred’s playing fills up the room, how his rhythm has groove, how it drives the music, and how he effortlessly creates a smooth musical blanket on which the voices and soloists can shine. That’s the magic of a good rhythm guitar player.
Hold on, did you say ‘lilting end’ a few lines ago? Yes, I did. But I’ll let Morten Alfred and Mia explain that themselves:
-‘ When we first met in Copenhagen in 2018 and started making music together, it seemed like we were missing an instrument to take the melody now and then. But as soon as we had that thought, we realized that we could just
‘lilt’ the melody, just as we’d each been doing so often when singing alone at home. We quickly learned that we didn’t need more than our voices, a guitar, and some catchy material to work with.’
And boy does it work! We have Polka Umulius to prove it! This, the third song on Tral, Tråd & Traditioner, has to be my favorite song of the album, maybe my favorite song of the last few months! I have had this as an earworm ever since I first listened to it two weeks ago. The song also answers whether Morten Alfred and Mia would go traditional or folk-jazz on this album. Both, actually! Polka Umulius is a traditional polka, but it is also jazzy, upbeat, cheeky…actually the most fun you can legally have on a dance floor. Ánd it is a lilt from start to finish. I love this. I truly love this! Put this song on and you instantly have the summer sweeping through your living room. A song like this should not be allowed without a “will cause addiction” warning on the package. That’s all I need to say about it!
But we have to carry on, there are more treasures to be found on Tral, Tråd & Traditioner. The following song: Hvordan Vil Du Forsørge Jer greats us with a cool jew harp /guitar intro. Although Mia and Morten Alfred said they only needed good songs, a guitar, and their own voices to fill up the CD, they díd invite their friends over for some additional musical coloration. The mouth harp solo in this song for instance is really cool, and there are more moments like that on the album. There is the violin following Mia’s lead vocals in Polka Umulius. There is the mouth harp solo on Hare Løb, with a vocoder no less. As if
temporarily stepped into the folk scene. In Åh Min Nikolaj/Russeren/Den 2. Russer you’ll hear an overtone flute flutter through the music, giving the song a cool pagan folk feel, not to mention the smoking violin solo in the second part of that song. But it is all tastefully mixed in the music. The overall feel of the CD stays that of two folk balladeers performing right there in your living room. And it is THAT sound that makes this album so special. That magical harmony between the voices and the guitar. Co-producer and studio technician
managed to record that magic perfectly, so huge kudos to her.
Morten, Mia and Tapani Varis performing Varis Hare Løb
Well, I think that sums up Tral, Tråd & Traditioner quite nicely. Mia and Morten Alfred have created a warm traditional singer-songwriter folk album with a lovely cheeky swing jazz touch to it. Really original in its approach and really laid-back at the same time.
One of my big wishes is to be allowed in a studio or rehearsal room once and witness an album being born. To see the whole process involved, especially the creative part. Well, that wish has come true. Tral, Tråd & Traditioner feels like we have been invited to the studio with Mia and Morten Alfred. You will hear all the fun ideas they had; all those “we can’t do that!” moments, that normally never seem to survive the mixing process, have been kept in. This Making Tral, Tråd & Traditioner a boost of energy, a splash of good cheer, and an awfully entertaining CD.
Findlay Napier & Gillian Frame with Mike Vass – The Ledger (2020)
A couple of years ago I had the great pleasure of reviewing Luminosity, the brilliant album of the Scottish folk band
Back of the Moon.
It was at that point that I fell in love with the voice of lead singer Findlay Napier. Back of the Moon went their separate ways two years after the release of Luminosity, but it didn’t stop the former bandmembers from making music.
for instance released a couple of solo albums: VIP: Very Interesting People in 2015, the EP Very Interesting Extras (2016>, Glasgow (2017), and quite recently It IS What It Is. Especially the 2017 album Glasgow is still a firm favourite within my record collection.
Findlay isn’t the only former Back of the Moon member that I’ve been following. Although not involved in this particular project, some of you may have read my
of the folk concept albums Findlay’s brother
has released over the years. And to keep it all in the family, Findlay’s wife,
released a lovely album of her own called Pendulum (2016) that I also had the pleasure of
Given how much I love all the albums by this musical family – and their friends-, you can imagine how much I was looking forward to hearing The Ledger. Little did I know it would become a journey into traditional Scottish folk music. A musical journey I enjoyed a lot!
So what’s the story behind The Ledger? In this case, it is easiest to let Findlay Napier explain it himself:
-‘Every week in the late 50s and early 60s The Scotsman published a traditional Scottish folk song: lyrics and melody alongside an explanatory article. My Grandfather cut them out and pasted them into an old ledger. In early 2018 Gillian, Mike, and I whittled over sixty neatly cut and pasted songs from the ledger down to the songs you hear on this recording. At first, we searched for a theme but in the end, we chose the ten we liked singing the most.
The Ledger is best enjoyed beside a roaring fire with a dram…, tea and coffee also work…, especially with a dram in them.’ [taken from Bandcamp]
So there’s The Ledger for you. A lovely trip down memory lane recorded by Gillian Frame ( fiddle, lead- and backing vocals), Findlay Napier (guitar, high strung guitar, lead, and backing vocals),
(tenor guitar, fiddle, and music box) together with
Bonnie George Campbell is the song that opens this album and indeed it feels like a warm fire on a winter’s evening. Now I already told you, I just love Findlay Napier’s singing. His voice feels so emotional, it has such a beautiful timbre, his technique seems so effortless, that his vocal chords always seem to make a direct connection with my heart. He manages to add meaning to every word he sings, making him the ultimate singer/songwriter in my opinion. Combine that voice with some delicate guitar -, and bass playing, add the beautiful second voice from Gillian Frame, and you get a song that feels timeless. Call me weird but Bonnie George Campbell actually feels like home.
That comforting feeling of coming home is something that stays with me throughout this whole album. Findlay, Gillian, and Mike have managed to capture the feeling I would have had visiting my grandparents as a young kid, playing with the old toys, having that lovely tomato soup only grandma could make. All the songs on The Ledger ooze tradition, but without sounding old-fashioned. Bonnie George Campbell may sound purely traditional, with the next song, the more upbeat Burnie Bushel I can already hear the first cool tweaks I recognize from Back of the Moon’s Luminosity. There is that cool second guitar weaving through the song from the start for instance. Or the catchy fiddle solo Gillian plays halfway through Burnie Bushel. And I haven’t even mentioned that cool high-pitched sound coming in at the end yet, making me think for a second it was a hurdy-gurdy. I love those modern tweaks the ‘band’ has woven into the music. Contrasting, yet also complimenting the warm traditional singing style of Gillian and Findlay.
It is the constant contrast between these modern, contemporary tweaks and the traditional singer/songwriter duet style that is the strength of this album. It is also the reason why I started looking up the songs played. It made me curious how other artists jhad done it. It also made me curious about the history of all these songs. The first time I listened to Baloo Baleery for instance I made a note about the cool music box intro it had. It makes the song feel warmer, more tender I wrote, not knowing it is actually a Scottish lullaby. That clearly explains the music box AND the warm feeling of this song. The ‘band is extremely good at giving the lyrics exactly the right musical feel. The next song Van Diemen’s Land proves that straight away.
Van Diemen’s Land is an old transportation ballad. It tells the story of a poor fellow caught for poaching who was transported to Van Diemen’s land (New Zealand) only for that reason. True to the text the music has a slightly dark, eerie feel over it. Not too much though, only subtle. You hear it in the slight echo used on Gillian’s voice, the equally subtle distorted effect used on Findlay’s backing vocals, the weird, cool-sounding, high-pitched plucked strings (is that the high strung guitar Findlay Napier is credited with playing?), the build-up of it all. Every aspect adds to the sadness captured so perfectly in the lyrics written some 200 years ago.
Barbara Allen is a nice comfy folk song, luring you into the Highlands. It gave me the feeling I was floating adrift over the deep dark lochs and through the hidden glens of bonnie aul’ Scotland. As I said, this album feels so much like a homecoming. And home is a stone cottage hidden in the green shoulders of the Cairngorms. At least while listening to this beautiful seventeenth-century ballad it is.
Come to think of it, one more thing I like about this album is the lack of obvious evergreens. Yes, all ten songs are traditionals, but I’ve personally only heard Jamie Raeburn and Walking All Alane before. Granted, when it comes to Celtic folk music I’m still on a journey of discovery, but still…
Walking All Alane would be the exception that makes the ‘lack-of-evergreen’ rule. The minute you hear the first notes you will recognize it as the tune of Twa Corbies; The three Ravens, but in this case with lyrics narrating about yet another love affair meeting a tragic end.
After declaring my love for Findlay’s voice earlier on, I now have to do the same for Gillian’s too. She tells this tragic story so beautifully. Again the arrangements are amazing as well. The effect on Findlay’s voice creating a certain distance in space and time is so cool. Not to mention the melodramatic string ending finishing the song brilliantly. Candy to the ear, and not only for fans of folk music.
I want to pick out one last song that is recorded on The Ledger: Twa recruitin’ Sergeants. Again a song that goes all the way back to the seventeen hundreds. In those days boys and young men would be ‘tricked’ into voluntary service with the British armies, helped by the prospect of money, the promise of a good life..and maybe a drop or two of the strong stuff.
Now this song was born as a merry march, perfect to impress the unfortunate young lads, and normally it is still played as a jolly sing-a-long. Not on The Ledger. Gillian, Findlay, and Mike deliberately took the tempo out of it and turned it into a melancholic ballad with some truly beautiful fiddling in it.
To me, it feels like they are playing it from the perspective of the same unfortunate youngster, but now at the night before he has to go into battle, hearing the promises of the recruiters ringing in his ears one more time, full of remorse. Or maybe it is from the perspective of a parent? Sitting on the side of a fresh grave, reading the last letter of their beloved son, the words he wrote dancing over and over before their tear-filled eyes. In any case it is beautiful.
‘And it’s over the mountain and over the Main,
Through Gibralter, to France and Spain.
Pit a feather tae your bunnet, and a kilt aboon your knee,
Sae list my bonnie laddie and come awa wi me.
Cover art: Elly Lucas
Pictures: Elly Lucas
Iona Fyfe – Away From My Window (2018) Review
– ‘Hello folk radio DJ‘. With this email,
introduced herself to our station. And with this email she also sent us a pile of music files. A pile that has become bigger and bigger over time, as Iona releases new music on Spotify on a semi-regular basis. Four singles in 2021, three in 2020, a six-song EP in 2019. This lady has been busy. The initial idea was that I would start the story with Iona Fyfe’s first full-length album Away From My Window, released in 2018, and then continue from there. But once I started listening to Away From My Window there was so much I wanted to say about it that I had to decide otherwise. I’ll come back to the 2019 EP Dark Turn Of Mind, the 2015 debut EP The First Sangs, the 2016 EP East and the 2020/2021 singles in other reviews somewhere in the near future. (Which doesn’t mean you can’t listen to those albums and singles beforehand. I highly advise it, actually!!)
What do we know about this talented singer whose albums impressed me so much? If you look Iona up on Wikipedia, the accolades are so numerous that they will be tumbling from your screen: semi-finalist of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2016; finalist of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Award in 2017 and 2021; Scots Singer o the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2018; Young Scots Speaker o the Year in 2019 at the inaugural Scots Language Awards, Scots Performer o the Year in 2020, and Scots Speaker o the Year in 2021.
Quite a pile of accolades for someone who just turned 24!
So who is Iona Fyfe? She is a Scottish folk singer-songwriter from Huntly, Aberdeenshire. As a child, she found a love for poems in the Doric dialect (the popular name for the dialect spoken in the mid-northern region of Scotland), a love that she has kept till the present day. Attending singarounds, ceilidhs, and competitions from the age of five, Iona became an accomplished singer with a huge love for the Scottish folk repertoire. It was in those days that she met many revivalist singers such as
who influenced her ballad and bothy ballad style.
(Bothy ballads are songs sung by farm labourers in the northeast region of Scotland. In order to entertain themselves and the other members of the town, the young men of the bothy would hold musical evenings, the bothy nichts, with the music provided by their own impromptu band, the bothy band. A tragic song might be followed by a joke or a story, then a humorous song. Only rarely would a servant girl be present at these events, and musical instruments were also rare according to Wikipedia.)
Iona Fyfe’s love for Scottish traditional music and the Scottish language only grew while she was studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, so it may not come as a surprise that she graduated with a first-class honours degree in Traditional Music and holds an FLCM from London College of Music (a Fellowship of the London College of Music.)
To make her biography even more impressive, Iona Fyfe is also an active voice in the bid to get official recognition of the Scottish language, as well as raising a voice against sexual harassment. She champions equality within the music industry as well as fair pay for music streaming, and she is a member of the Scottish and Northern Irish brand of the musicians union.
You almost wonder how Iona managed to find the time to record any album at all, but she did. In 2015 she released her first EP called The First Sangs. A mini-album filled with 4 lovely folk ballads, partly recorded live. This EP was followed by a second mini-CD called East which was released in 2016. Away From My Window, Iona’s first full-length album, came out in 2018, and what a gem it is
Guise Of Tough is the song that starts this album, which is mostly filled with beautiful ballads. Guise of Tough itself is a more upbeat bothy song. To give you some advice straight away: don’t listen to this as background music! Get your headphones out. There is so much hidden in all these songs, the music is so well arranged and the musicians so good that it would be a shame if you missed something. Of course, Iona’s voice is the main feature of this album, but I want to focus on the instrumentalists first, as they can go unnoticed so easily, yet are so delightfully good. Just notice the notes of the acoustic guitar, the fiddle and the mandolin doing their wee ol’ dance around Iona’s crystal-clear voice. The beauty of the musical arrangement becomes even more apparent in the solo break. Jani Lang on fiddle takes the lead here, but there is so much happening throughout the whole song that it truly feels like a spring day caught in music.
Glenlogie is the first of many ballads that fill up this lovely CD. Again the guitar notes dance with Iona’s beautiful voice. The years of singing in competitions have given Iona an immaculate technique. Her voice has a natural beauty to it. It can be strong and powerful when needed but has an angelic side as well. In a way, Iona’s delicate emotional, yet strong style of singing reminds me ever so slightly of
Back Of The Moon
days. Not that weird, as they also recorded their own version of this traditional song. Both versions are one of a kind, but share a delicate tenderness. Both feel like they are gently caressing your ears. Both are clear favorites of mine.
With the third song Banks Of Inverurie, we leave the feel of spring in the music and enter the summer. Iona sings this a bit lower and I can’t help but notice how much depth her voice has gained since her debut EP. Trust me, her vocal abilities on the debut were already impressive, Iona just got even better over the years. I can’t help but close my eyes, stop typing and listen, drawn in by her song. And with those closed eyes I enjoy the soft repeated chords of the piano, suddenly appearing on the right side of my headphones, even more. (I warned you you should wear those, didn’t I?). As I said earlier, the arrangements on this album are just amazing. I am loving every note I hear. Although most of the songs are ‘old’ traditionals, steeped in history, the music sounds fresh and vibrant. Most likely because Iona gathered a talented group of young folk musicians around her, and you hear their youthful energy sparkle in every note they play.
The Swan Swims is the second more up-tempo singalong on Away From My Window. Again the band places that ‘hidden’ piano in my right ear. I can’t help but get a huge grin on my face every time I hear that. And that grin keeps getting bigger as the song progresses. I love the harmonies, the way the song develops – from a tender ‘duet’ between Tim Edey’s acoustic guitar and Iona’s crystal-clear voice – to a grand singalong. The border pipes kicking in after three minutes are just the icing on this Scottish folk cake.
Title track Away From My Window is the second change in feel. The song is darker, even feels slightly eerie with the ‘haunting’ strokes on the violin and the spoken text starting the song up. The lyrics of Away From My Window are pure poetry, as are most of the lyrics on this album. The words are full of pain and grief, but never say why. Every sad note leaves plenty of room for your own interpretation. Pure poetry in music. A stunning song.
I have to mention the liner notes at this point. One of the first things you will see is a list of sources where all these ballads came from. Something you normally see in a scientific article, but not in a booklet of a CD. It says a lot about the sense of history that Iona has. The love of her Scottish musical heritage and the Scottish language as well. As does the fact that Iona asked for a segment of Lizzie Higgings’ original 1969 recording of Boony Udny to open her interpretation of the song.
Most of the songs on Away From My Window are traditionals. Take Me Out Drinking is the first of the more modern songs. A lovely ballad, originally called When These Shoes Were New, was written and recorded by
in 1980. Iona shows a different side of her music in this song. Although still folk, it leans slightly more towards Americana; a style that fits her just as well as the more traditional folksongs or bothy ballads. Come to think of it. At no point did I even consider comparing her voice to that of another singer. It says a lot about the vocal talent that Iona is.
And So We Must Rest is a beautiful lullaby, written by Aidan Moffat for his young son. It is a warm caress put to music. Its chorus is a lovely duet between Iona and Cameron Nixon, who does all of the backing vocals on this album and I’m loving the synergy between these two here. This lullaby leaves me feeling all happy, open and warm, the perfect way to set me up for the full impact of Banks Of The Tigris.Banks of the Tigris is the only song on this album from Iona’s own hand, but what a strong song it is. This is what Iona herself wrote about it: ‘- Most of the headlines during my teenage years centred around the conflict in Syria and the Middle East… …I wrote this whilst feeling profoundly emotional after reading an article.‘
The contrast between the feeling of safety of And So We Must Rest and the haunting reality of Banks Of The Tigris is poignant. And it works. The message comes across loud and strong. With a hair-raising power equal to classic protest songs like
Goodnight Saigon or
Christina Stürmer’s Mama Ana Ahabak. I applaud you, Iona, for choosing to tell this story as well. I also applaud the arrangements on it:
The Eastern-like strings, drifting in and out of the song in the most eerie, breathtaking way.
The constant ‘dropping of spaces’ in the music with Iona’s voice cutting through, poignant, piercing.
The Middle Eastern male vocals and -instruments sliding in and out, disturbing, beautiful.
The contrast between Iona’s high, crystal-clear vocals and the dark ‘threatening’ drone always there in the background.
And that last eerie note, raising every single hair on my body! Well done Iona and Jani Lang on those arrangements. They are breathtaking!
Banks Of The Tigris could have easily been an impressive ending to this stunning CD, but Iona decided otherwise. It feels like she wanted to leave us with a cheerful note, not a sad one, so we get one last song as an encore.
So Pit Gair ends this album as it started. With a lovely up-tempo dance song. A cheerful end to a stunning album. Everybody that has a warm heart for folk music needs to have this CD. There are no ifs or buts about it. This is a must-have CD. And I’m so looking forward to introducing more of this talented lady’s music in the near future. But for now, enjoy Away From My Window. It is well worth it!
Cover art: Louise Bichan
pictures: Elly Lucas