Tag Archives: Scottish folk

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. Findlay Napier 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 reviews of the folk concept albums Findlay’s brother Hamish Napier has released over the years. And to keep it all in the family, Findlay’s wife, Gillian Frame released a lovely album of her own called Pendulum (2016) that I also had the pleasure of reviewing. 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), Mike Vass (tenor guitar, fiddle, and music box) together with Euan Burton (bass) and Steve Fivey (percussion).

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.

– Cliff

Editor: Sara
Cover art: Elly Lucas
Pictures: Elly Lucas

Iona Fyfe – Away From My Window (2018) Review

– ‘Hello folk radio DJ‘. With this email, Iona Fyfe 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 Jimmy Hutchison, Joe Aitken and Carole Prior 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 Findlay Napier in his 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 Michael Marra 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 Billy Joel‘s 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!

– Cliff

Editor: Iris
Cover art: Louise Bichan
pictures: Elly Lucas

Salt House – Huam (2020) Review

This is the creature

“This is the creature there has never been.
They never knew it, and yet, none the less,
they loved the way it moved, its suppleness,
its neck, its very gaze, mild and serene.

Not there, because they loved it, it behaved
as though it were. They always left some space.
And in that clear unpeopled space they saved
it lightly reared its head, with scarce a trace
of not being there.

They fed it, not with corn,
but only with the possibility
of being. And that was able to confer
such strength, its brow put forth a horn. One horn.
Whitely it stole up to a maid – to be
within the silver mirror and in her.”

Rainer Maria Rilke
It might seem a bit odd, starting a folk CD review with poem, but for me, writing a review is not about judging and dissecting the music. It is all about sharing. Sharing what I hear and what music does to me. In this particular case, the music Salt House recorded, had my mind drift off to this poem time and time again. I’ll tell you why. The power of This is the Creature is that every word is carefully selected to be there, none more needed, none more written. Every word opens up a space to wander into. It is real, yet it is not. And most importantly, Rainer Maria Rilke uses the power of limitation. Less is more. Less is beautiful.

The first track on Huam, called Fire Light, starts just like that. It is just a single guitar melody and a voice. Nothing more, nothing less. A warming tender voice though. A poetic voice too. And that is it. That is all you need for a beautiful song. Yes, there is the added violin, that subtle sound of the dulcimer, that build-up to a beautiful ballad, but it never takes away from the essence of the song: the words, the poetry in it.

Beautiful poetic music, Singer-songwriter folk at it’s very best

The sixth track If I Am Lucky is equally beautiful. Again that beautiful combination of a guitar and a voice, beautiful harmonies, and a gentle but really catchy hook weave through the song. But once again this is all to support the words, the poetry. All three members of Salt House are storytellers, singer-songwriters in the purest form, never overdone, never overdramatic. Always honest, with a sprinkling of tenderness and positivity that I just love. Every single note of it. In older folk songs there is often a lot of pure storytelling. Think of songs like The Well, Twa Corbies, Matty Groves or Little Duke Arthur’s Nurse. With Lord Ullins Daughter, Salt House also recorded such an old story, and it is the perfect combination of story and music. It has a slightly darker feel than the first two songs I described, achieved just by a simple guitar rhythm at just the right tone and the viola ‘creeping’ under it. Who needs all kinds of fancy keyboard effects if you have a voice, guitar and viola? Not Salt House!

Huam – the Scots name for the call of an owl – is Salt House’s third album. In 2013 Siobhan Miller (vocals, harmonium), Ewan MacPherson (guitar, vocals, banjo, Jews harp), Lauren MacColl (viola, fiddle, vocals) and Euan Burton (double bass, Rhodes piano, vocals) recorded the debut album Lay Your Dark Low. An album equally as beautiful as Huam, slightly richer in arrangements but lovely Celtic singer-songwriter folk. Don’t expect any dance tunes on Salt House’s albums: the band’s focus is on the storytelling side of folk, and they do this in a fresh and modern way that is reminiscent of like-minded artists like Back of the Moon, Findlay Napier , or Cara. In a slightly different line-up (Singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon joining Ewan MacPherson and Lauren MacColl) the band recorded the more balladesque record Undersong (2018). On Undersong the band focusses even more on the lyrics side of a song, while the instruments becoming a ‘simple’ accompaniment to the songs. Like a simple dressing to a salad.

On Huam Jenny, Ewan, Lauren and producer Andy Bell (who also worked with them on Undersong) added just that touch more melody and interest to the arrangements, making Huam sound like the perfect balance between Lay Your Dark Low and Undersong. To keep the salad comparison up, this time we don’t have a salad-with-dressing. Instead, we find little added surprises: some sundried tomatoes, some honey roasted cashew nuts, some rosemary spiced goats cheese, spicing up the ‘basic’ salad ever so nicely into something really delicate and special (And yes, I DID go to a fancy restaurant the evening before I wrote this review)

We are already getting to the end of the review. Just as the music on Huam, less is more. Huam is a truly stunning album that both me and my lovely editor Iris love. (Actually, we all love it at CeltCast HQ, Fire Light has even been voted to be the Monthly Marker for August.)
Sometimes I can compare Salt House’s music with the early work of Rachel Croft (The Disquiet for instance), sometimes with Cara (just listen to Union of Crows and you’ll understand why). Sometimes the band sounds light and cheerful like on All Shall Be Still, sometimes deeply traditional like on William and Elsie, and sometimes even Christmassy (add some *sleighbells* and Mountain Of Gold is the next CeltCast Christmas hit). Most of all they sound pure and honest, making Huam a beautiful singer-songwriter folk album. It’s one that I will be playing many times more after publishing this review. An A+ album if I would be giving points.

– Cliff

– Editor: Iris
– Picture: Salt House

Hamish Napier releases third folk concept album

After his 2016 concept album The River and the 2018 folk concept album The Railway, former Back of the Moon multi-instrumentalist Hamis Napier released his third folk concept album The Woods last Friday -the 20th of March- in a spontaneous Facebook live community listening session, due to the corona restrictions preventing the originally planned release mini-tour to go through. We, as CeltCast did not let this opportunity to listen to the new album together with so many other fans pass by, and I can assure you The Woods has been spinning its rounds many a time at CeltCast HQ since that moment.
Just as The River and The railway before it, The Woods is a themed Celtic folk CD, in this case, sponsored by Cairngorms connect, a partnership of neighbouring land managers, committed to a bold and ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

Hamish Napier himself writes about this album:
“We humans are tree creatures. After the last ice age 100 centuries ago, the forests expanded across the barren landscape and with it the human population. Woods and man evolved together. Let us regain the forests and our common knowledge of them. The 18 letters of the Gaelic alphabet were traditionally taught to children through the old names for the native trees (plus a few shrubs). I have written a tune for each letter and included all the native trees that can be found locally in the wild. There are 2 trees for each of the letters G, R and U. There are tunes for forest flora and fauna listed in Scots. I have included descriptions, facts and uses for each tree. All 26 tunes are rooted in traditional Scottish folk dance tune forms, woven in contemporary arrangements and enhanced with field recordings made in the woods. For me, this is an album of identity, exploring my native languages, music, folklore and natural environment. “

All this inspiration accumulated in a beautiful conceptual Celtic folk CD with equally stunning artwork according to our reviewer Cliff.
As you read this we are hard at work to try and add The Woods – as well as The River and The Railway – to our radio stream AND you can expect a full review of all three albums by Cliff in the coming weeks.

The Woods is available through Hamish Napier‘s bandcamp page.


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