MUSIC REVIEWS

11What’s hot – and what’s not – in today’s Celtic music scene!

Nua
Flow

Canadian trad-trio Nua build upon the success of their 2014 debut Bold with a solid and satisfying sophomore effort; Flow is flush with both fast flowing melodies and songs as lush as the Irish landscape. It’s amazing how far three instruments – guitar, fiddle and bodhrán – can take traditional tunes when this kind of award-winning talent is in abundance. From the opening notes of Wide Open to the closing run of YK Inn, these 12 terrific tracks will have listeners tapping their toes and, for ex-pats, wiping a tear from the eye. Highlights here include The Jacobite, Wasabi, and the pseudo-country styling of Manic Breakfast. A lock for major North American festivals, be sure to catch the band on tour in the coming months.

Walking on Cars
Everything This Way

With all the hype surrounding Walking on Cars, you’d be forgiven thinking that the Irish quintet is the second coming of U2. And while comparisons to the Dublin megastars are inevitable – anthemic melodies, uplifting choruses, poignant ballads – Walking on Cars carve out a strong sense of self with their debut recording. Vocals soar on the opener Catch Me if You Can, while guitars paint pretty on At Gunpoint and Ship Goes Down. Bass and drums drive Don’t Mind Me and Hand in Hand, but it is Sorcha Durham’s powerful piano that carries the day here, particularly on the first single Speeding Cars. Interestingly, despite their catchy pop-rock leanings, the band’s Dingle roots shine through all twelve tracks with a wee touch of trad.

BodénèsHamon
Daou Don Dañs

As evidenced by both the popularity of the Festival Interceltique de Lorient and the resurgence of the Brythonic dialect, Bretagne is the Celtic hot-spot these days. That élan is ever-present on the latest effort from bombardist Steven Bodénès and piper Sylvain Hamon. With a little help from their friends (vocals, guitar, bass), the dynamic duo weave and wind their way through eleven tracks of traditional tunes from the east coast of France. Those with an ear for time-honoured jigs and reels from Scotland and the Emerald Isle will find something familiar here, as the main melody lines make it easy to connect the Celtic dots. Daou Don Dañs will remind us that, despite the geographical distance, our cultural esprit ties us together as a people.

The Gloaming
2

Almost amazingly, this Celtic supergroup’s music is greater than the sum of its superstar parts. Comprised of five brilliant and established musicians, there is surprisingly little ego here as the three Irish and two Americans put it all aside to seamlessly blend haunting Celtic melodies with jazz, contemporary classical, experimental and atmospheric music to create a unique sonic hybrid. Despite the myriad of styles and sounds – or perhaps because of it – the quintet still draws a straight line through each of the eleven songs, giving listeners plenty of signposts to keep ears wide open and attention attuned. Drawing comparisons to the Waterboys, Avro Pärt and Sigur Ros, it will be quite an experience to hear how the band can stretch these tunes out in concert.

Celtic Woman
Destiny

Like their male counterparts in Celtic Thunder, the ladies of Celtic Woman have become a slick and sleek hit-producing machine over the last decade. It would be too easy to criticize the quartet for being a case of style over substance. However, repeated listening of their latest recording, Destiny, is a reminder that traditional Irish music, in any form, shines with both spirit and soul. There is no denying the great vocal talent here and, thankfully, the girls never take these 15 tracks over the top, allowing both harmonies and melodies to breathe on their own, sifting their way into listener’s hearts. Arrangements and instrumentation are above average, as always, and special kudos for the cover of the Waterboys’ classic The Whole of the Moon.

Helena Bynre
Scéal

Irish singer and shanachie Helena Byrne sifts through the past, both Eire’s and her own, to produce 17 terrific tracks of old-school storytelling. Tales of traditional myths from the Emerald Isle blend seamlessly with quaint yarns from her childhood home, bringing to life the people and place of a different, and perhaps better, time. Ideal for relaxing around the fireplace with family and friends, listeners of all ages – particularly young children – will enjoy classic takes on The Fairies, The Dullahan, The Hunchback of Tipperary and more. The lone musical track – My Lagan Love – showcases Byrne’s lovely lilt, and leaves one wondering why there aren’t more songs in this selection. Hopefully, it is a teaser track of things to come for this talented tale-teller.

Mostly Melodeon
Dan Possumato

According to Wikipedia, the melodeon is “a diatonic button accordion and a member of the free-reed aerophone family of musical instruments. It is a type of button accordion on which the melody-side keyboard contains one or more rows of buttons, with each row producing the notes of a single diatonic scale. The buttons on the bass-side keyboard are most commonly arranged in pairs, with one button of a pair sounding the fundamental of a chord and the other the corresponding major triad (or, sometimes, a minor triad).” That said, no-one plays the instrument better than Irish-American Dan Possumato, and his latest recording, Mostly Melodeon, is a fun, frolicking 16-song romp through his roots that wouldn’t sound out of place at a Cape Breton kitchen party.

Fox n Firkin
No Vacancy

Australian Celt-Punks Fox n Firkin come out swinging on their debut recording No Vacancy. The opening salvo of Drink the Lot sets the torrid tone early, and doesn’t let up over the next nine tracks, with driving guitars, pounding drums and take-no-prisoners vocals. The title track is a detour into dub/ska, while the closing number pays homage to The Clash circa 1977. The band’s Irish roots shine through with mandolin on Days Long Gone and Too Hip. Other standout tracks here include the brilliant El Condor Pasa and the crunchy Bastard Brigade. What’s clear by album’s end is that the group has earned its stripes playing every backroom bar and pub down under, and stands as tall as Boston’s Dropkick Murphys or Kingston’s The Mahones.

Enya
Dark Sky Island

Ireland’s prolific prodigal daughter Enya Brennan returns with her tenth full-length studio recording Dark Sky Island, an 11-track mélange of moody, ethereal Celt-Pop. While the selection of sonic soundscapes is clearly a case of “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”, the Donegal native’s winning formula, much like herself, seems timeless. The album is bookended by The Humming and Diamonds on the Water, each epic, haunting and other-worldly. In between, gentle piano and strings sit like fields of green, over which Enya’s supple vocals hover like gentle Irish mist. In particular, So I Could Find My Way, I Could Never Say Goodbye and the title track will touch and tug at the heartstrings of ex-pats around the world. Hey – if it ain’t broke…

Runrig
The Story

One of Scotland’s best and bestselling bands, Runrig has at long last called it a day with its fourteenth and final studio recording, The Story. A shame, as the group – which has seen almost a dozen members come and go over its four+ decades – has never sounded better than on these eleven songs. Often tender – the lead-off, title-track is particularly moving, as is the stunning Rise and Fall – the sextet isn’t afraid to toughen things up with The Years We Shared. Other standouts include Every Beating Heart and When the Beauty, which features the great guitar work of Nova Scotian Bruce Guthro. The stirring Somewhere closes the album, and the band’s stay atop the charts, with charm and grace. Bravo gentlemen!

Damien O’Kane
Areas of High Traffic

Every once in a while a recording will come along that weaves and winds its way into the subconscious, softly sitting there for weeks as the mind sifts through sounds. Such is the case with Areas of High Traffic, the second solo release from singer-songwriter Damien O’Kane. The native of Coleraine, Northern Ireland hits the nail on the head like a blacksmith with these 11 songs, each remarkably crafted with simple guitar and voice. Though only 38 years of age, O’Kane finds himself both standing on the shoulders of, and keeping company with, giants of the genre like Van Morrison, Paul Brady, Luka Bloom and Damien Rice. Yes, he is that good, and this recording is an early frontrunner for Celtic album of the year.

The Mahones
25 Years of Irish Punk

Frontman Finny McConnell is quick to classify The Mahones as Irish Punk and not Celtic Punk. The difference is duly-noted, especially with this epic, quarter-century spanning best-of retrospective which draws heavily upon his distinct Dublin roots. It’s easy to forget what a musical powerhouse the Kingston, Ontario-based band has been since forming on St. Patrick’s Day in 1991. Re-recorded classics, including A Great Night On The Lash, Paint The Town Red, Past The Pint Of No Return and Drunken Lazy Bastard will remind listeners of the sound and fury that hallmarks both the group’s studio recordings and their fierce live shows. Hardcore fans can choose from a variety of anniversary packages also, which include bonus tracks, concert tickets, rare recordings, tee-shirts and Katie Kaboom artwork!

Celtic Colours Live
Volume 3

By all accounts, 2015’s Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton was a massive success, with more artists and attendees than ever before. Though a challenge to condense the size and scope of the nine-day experience, event organizers bring the sonic gathering to scale with Celtic Colours Live; Volume 3. The terrific 14-track CD is a testament to the talent and range of the performers. In particular, standout numbers from The String Sisters, Annbjorg Lien, Aiden O’Donnell and Liz Doherty emphasize the festival’s strong multinational flavor, while homegrown artists Kenneth MacKenzie, J.P. Cormier and The Barra MacNeils highlight the region’s Celtic roots. Hopefully, this superb recording will entice listeners to make the trip to this year’s CCIF, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this coming October.

Nuallan
The EP: Gaelic-Dance Piping From Cape Breton Island

It’s no secret Cape Breton is the heart of Celtic North America. When the first Scottish settlers arrived to the region more than 200 years ago, they brought with them the musical traditions of their homeland. Those customs continue to thrive today, due in large part to the efforts of Nova Scotia’s Gaelic College. The cultural institution is responsible for Nuallan – pipers Keith MacDonald, Kevin Dugas and Kenneth MacKenzie. Their Kickstarter-funded, debut 6-song recording does well to capture, convey and carry-on the area’s melodic history and heritage, tracing its rustic roots back hundreds of years to ‘ye’ ould country’. Accompanied by some of the province’s finest musicians, the young trio succeeds at showcasing the spirit and soul of a people, their landscape and their lineage.

The Glengarry Fiddlers
The Glengarry Fiddlers

Over 1,000 kilometers to the west of Cape Breton Island is Canada’s other Celtic heartland of eastern Ontario. There, the Glengarry Highland Games in Maxville draws tens of thousands of Celts to the region each year. Maxville is also home to The Glengarry Fiddlers, a 50 member+ ensemble led by legendary teacher Ian R. MacLeod. Their self-titled debut CD is sonic joy; from the opening notes of A Hundred Thousand Welcomes to the closing chorus of We’re a Hundred Pipers, the group weaves a warm and wonderful melodic Celtic knot with 15 traditional jigs, reels and strathspeys. MacLeod and his students offer up more than an exercise in musical academia, however; this rootsy recording shines a light on the country’s Celtic past, present and future.

Peverlamm
Deltu

Across the waters, Bretagne continues to enjoy and celebrate a Celtic cultural revival through music and dance. Both disciplines are detailed with Peverlamm’s latest musical effort Deltu. Led by multi-instrumentalist Konogan an Habask, the sonic sextet rips and roars its way through 14 classic and contemporary tunes with uilleann pipes, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, whistles, bouzouki, and more. Vocalist Elsa Corre brings traditional tales to life with passion and precision, drawing inspiration from the likes of Sinead O’Conner, Mary Jane Lamond, Bjork, and Lhasa de Sela. Though perhaps overly experimental at times – the tracks Hunvre and Ton Sioul in particular – this recording nonetheless gives listeners the chance to savour the flavour of a great Celtic nation whose cultural impact and importance, too often, gets overlooked.

Wendy MacIsaac
Off The Floor

It’s back to basics for one of Nova Scotia’s finest fiddlers, and Creignish’s Wendy MacIsaac has never sounded better. Dear Christy sets the tone from the start; a rousing round of reels sure to get hands clappin’, feet tappin’ and thighs slappin’. Accompanied by guitar and piano, the pace picks up with Biddy From Sligo, before settling into the soulful and stirring Magificent 7. The upbeat medleys of Uist Lasses and Holy Strathspeys Pat give way to the last four tracks, all jigs and reels, and all recorded – literally – live off the floor. While the split studio/live format makes for uneven production, the raw energy and pure joy of the performances more than make up for it. Cape Breton at its very best.

Finnegan’s Hell
Drunk, Sick and Blue

This rockin’ five-piece, Celt-Punk band from Scandinavia lists its influences as the Pogues, the Dubliners, the Ramones, Nirvana, Motörhead, Dropkick Murphys, Pissed Jeans, and Flogging Molly. And – sure enough – that is exactly what their latest effort Drunk, Sick and Blue sounds like. And which, by the way, is why this recording kicks Celtic ass from the opening notes of the title track to the closing chorus of Drunken Christmas (check out the video!) Highlights here are many, but both Galway Races and The Molly Maguires stand tall for their sheer raw punk power. A towering and terrific tour-de-force, Finnegan’s Hell will likely be blowing concert halls and clubs down over the coming year – be sure not to miss them when on tour.

The Blackout
Wolves

Sadly, this stunning five-tune EP will likely be the swan-song for the ‘little hard-rock band that could’ from the blue-collar, mining town of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. The supersonic sextet, who have been around since 2003, have decided to call it quits after their current tour wraps in early 2015. And that’s a shame, really, as the group has never sounded tighter or more together than it does with this crowd-funded recording. Grinding guitars, booming bottom-end bass, and drop-dead driving drums are mixed and mastered with finesse on each track, laying a rock-solid foundation for the melodic, screamo-pop co-vocals of Gavin Butler and Sean Smith. Call it nu-metal, call is post-metal, The Blackout can now take their rightful place alongside Lostprophets on the Welsh rock mantel.

U2
Songs of Innocence

Those waiting on the U2 of old will have to be patient; the Irish super-group’s evolution has shifted their perspective from telescopic to microscopic in this deeply personal, 11-track effort. Even the grandiose gesture of releasing the recording free to iTunes users last month is overshadowed here by the sonic subtleties of Every Breaking Wave, Sleep Like a Baby Tonight and Song For Someone. Sure, the trademark echo guitar and soaring vocals are there on Iris, Raised By Wolves and Cedarwood Road – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? – but the band’s decision to explore their past instead of re-inventing it was a wise one artistically. Risky, perhaps, but U2 fans are among the most brand loyal in the world and will follow.

The Mahones
The Hunger and the Fight (Part One)

The first component of a conceptual double-album, The Hunger and the Fight (Part One) is an ambitious musical undertaking from Canadian rockers The Mahones that chronicles both the pre-emigration struggles of the Irish people and the evolution of their culture on the Emerald Isle. The fiery four-piece band from Kingston, Ontario punches well above its weight here, producing one of the best albums of the year of any genre with a stirring selection of songs that go way beyond the group’s raucous, three-chord roots. Imagine Celt-Punk meets The Who’s Quadrophenia; complex, compelling, and content-cohesive in its centre-line that runs like a roaring river through a plush Celtic landscape. Truly, this is a masterpiece that captures the band at the very pinnacle of its creative prowess.

Various
The Best of the Pipes of Christmas

Recorded in concert over a decade at various venues across New York City and New Jersey, this 15-song selection is sure to stir the soul this holiday season with a treasure trove of traditional Yuletide tunes and Celtic classics. From the opening solo drones of The Highland Cathedral to the fading pomp of The MacMhuirich’s March, the magic, splendour and pageantry of Christmas comes alive with a musical mélange of vocals, harp, fiddle, flute, cello, organ, accordion, guitar, and brass. But it is the pipes and drums – brash and bold – that drive the likes of Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, Amazing Grace and Scotland the Brave to new heights. Be sure to stuff this into someone’s stocking this year.

Homeland
The Show

Ohio is the undisputed home of rock ‘n’ roll in North America – the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum are in Cleveland for a reason – and that influence and inspiration can be heard and felt on Homeland’s latest recording, The Show. Hailing from nearby Springfield, the Celt-Rock quintet sounds tight and terrific on Modern Man, Mud, Ghost Ship and the title track. Fiddles reel and rollick over guitars, bass, drums and mandolin on Cloud Cover and Pressed for Time, and a guest appearance by legendary piper Kevin Palm on The Climb and Leaving of Liverpool brings the band to great highland grounds. The gentle lament and gorgeous vocal harmonies of Closing Song are a fine and fitting finale to this excellent, engaging effort.

Byrne and Kelly
Acoustically Irish

There is a reason why this album went to #1 on Billboard’s World Music charts; Neil Byrne and Ryan Kelly of Celtic Thunder make the case that they are more than just pretty faces with this cozy and quaint collection of 11 classic Irish tracks that highlight the pair’s musical and vocal prowess. Guitars, mandolin, piano and percussion bring Saints and Sinners, Captured and On Ragland Road to new places, while covers of Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl and Hothouse Flowers’ Don’t Go sound both fresh and familiar at once. The real treats here are the ballads; Beautiful Affair, No Man’s Land, The Fields of Althenry and The Water Is Wide will all bring a tear to the eye and a tug to the heartstrings.

Jennifer Licko
A Thousand Curses Upon Love

From Swansboro, North Carolina, super-soprano and mega multi-instrumentalist Jennifer Licko could very well be the heir-apparent to Canada’s Loreena McKennitt and Clannad’s Maire Brennan; soaring vocals dominate her sixth full-length release, A Thousand Curses Upon Love. Plush harmonies drive the disc’s opening track, Turning Away, while The Moon Going Home, Fickle Breezes and The Sea are subtler, allowing the melodies more room to breathe. The Song of the Singing Horseman and Hard Times Come Again No More are good standard fare, and succeed at showcasing the singer’s American roots. The lovely Licko is at her very best, however, when she lets loose with the more traditional Mile Marbhphaisg Air A’ Ghaol and the rolling Siuthadaibh Bhalachaibh. Bonus points for the all too cool album title.

Bonhomme Setter
Obia

Little known to most, Quebec City is a cornucopia of Celtic culture, with many Irish settling across the St. Lawrence Seaway in the latter half of the 19th century. The ensuing hybrid created a lasting and fascinating musical mélange that continues to evolve. Not quite Quebecois, nor Irish, nor even Acadian, area sextet Bonhomme Setter has brought the best of each to Obia, a stirring and somber set of 10 terrific original and traditional tunes that speak to the region’s distinct and diverse past. Guitars, bass, pipes, whistles, fiddle, cello, percussion and voice all shine on Man of the House, The Blacksmith and Gloomy Sky, while Back Home in Derry combines the melodies of Gordon Lightfoot and Christy Moore with the poetry of Bobby Sands.

Gillian Head
Spirit

Nova Scotia has long been a hot-bed of Celtic fiddling, with new generations of four-stringers standing atop the shoulders of their predecessors. Twenty-something Gillian Head takes a place in those ranks with her 11-track debut recording, Spirit. From the opening salvo of Sputnikskerry to the closing chorus of Willie’s Mom in Donegal, listeners are taken on a timeless trip through Cape Breton’s rich musical heritage, and by turn, those of Scotland and Ireland. A solid and spunky selection of jigs, reels and ballads showcase her finesse on the frets – lively and loose atop a tight quartet of guitar, piano, drums and whistle. Ideal for Friday nights in the family parlour or kitchen, Spirit is sure to keep your hands clapping and your toes tapping.

Paolo Nutini
Caustic Love

There may be very little that is ‘Celtic’ about this recording, but that hasn’t stopped Paisley’s Paolo Nutini from releasing what many critics are calling the best album to ever come out of Scotland. From the opening grooves of Scream to the cutesy closing chorus of Someone Like You, the 27-year-old Scotalian singer/songwriter takes lucky listeners on a hip and happening trip from 60s-era Motown, R’n’B, gospel and soul through to cutting-edge breaks and beats. Deep bass and drums, rhythmic guitars, cool keyboards, and a shiny horn section lay down a rock-solid foundation over which Nutini soars with smooth and sexy vocals. With an abundance of style and substance, and talent to spare, Justin, Jay-Z and Kanye ain’t got a thing on this blue-eyed soulster.

Celtic Colours Live 2013
Various Artists

At the other end of the musical spectrum, but no less impressive, is a stirring selection of live performances from last fall’s Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton. Recorded over seven days and nights, and featuring an array of local, national and international artists, including the likes of Nathan Rogers, Kimberly Fraser and Troy MacGillivray, these fifteen foot-stompin’, tear-jerkin’ tracks succeed at showcasing a variety of tunes and talent that is both as diverse as the area’s autumn foliage, and as warm and welcoming as the region’s residents. As with most live recordings, the energy brings out the best in these contemporary takes on classic cuts. For those who were there, amazing memories – and for those who were not, an invitation to attend.

Last Call
Black 47

What happens when you get a bunch of old-school Celt-Rockers together for one more kick at the can? You get Last Call, thirteen songs that sum up Black 47’s career with sonic suave and swagger. Standouts here include the rollicking Dublin Days, the rowdy St. Patrick’s Day, the ska-infused Johnny Comes a Courtin’, and the lovely Lament for John Kuhlman. While Larry Kirwin’s “lil’ band that could” never received the proper acclaim that they so rightly deserved as one of the genre’s founding fathers, bands like The Dropkick Murphys, The Mahones, Great Big Sea and others wouldn’t enjoy the kinds of audiences they do without Black 47. Last Call is a fun, festive and fitting way for this seminal sextet to bid a fond farewell.

For Freedom Alone
Various Artists

With the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn upon us, the good folks at Greentrax Recordings in Edinburgh sought fit to supply an official event soundtrack. Normally I don’t go in for these kinds of cash-grab compilations, but this one tugged at my heartstrings from the first track, and I’m not even Scottish. A moving mélange of upbeat numbers, beautiful ballads and historical narration, the collection captures and conveys the soul and spirit of the occasion. And while intended as an honourable homage to a glorious past, the eighteen selections are sure to stir the heads and hearts of a country who will be deciding its future in the coming months. For non-Scots like myself, For Freedom Alone is a sound education in history.

The Scottish Diaspora
Various Artists

There are over 50 million people of Scottish ancestry around the world, with most in Canada, the United States and Australia. Accordingly, this 39-song, 2-CD collection reflects those emigration patters, with an emphasis on contemporary North American artists, including strong selections from the likes of Natalie MacMaster, Alan Mills and Stan Rogers. Still, both long-time listeners and those new to the genre will enjoy this moving and melodic mélange of traditional tunes. Standout tracks include North-West Passage by The McCalmans, Indigo Blue by Robin Laing, Siobhan Miller’s River of Steel, and a stirring version of Maggie’s Pancakes by Salsa Celtica – each will be sure to bring both a twinkle and a tear to the eyes of ex-pats looking for a sweet sonic slice of home.

Emerald – Musical Gems
Celtic Woman

It is testament to Celtic Woman’s mammoth popularity that their latest recording Emerald was available for mass download via various torrent sites within hours of its release. The appeal is understandable; the Irish quartet is easy on both the eyes and ears, and weaves a winning formula of soft, flowing melodies and soaring vocal harmonies. The group’s trademark of turning a trick on traditional tunes is at play again here; Mo Ghile Mear, Dulaman and Nil Se n La will tug at heart-strings, as will Danny Boy, You Raise Me Up and the irresistible The Parting Glass. While it may be a case of plus-ca-change plus c’est la meme chose, this one adheres to the age-old adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Little Sway
Crissi Cochrane

Originally from small-town Nova Scotia, twenty-something singer/songwriter Crissi Cochrane recently relocated to Windsor, Ontario. The new proximity to Detroit has influenced her third recording; hints of soul, r ‘n’ b, bossa nova, jazz and gospel weave their way like musical threads through a foundation of folk-inspired melodies. The result is a smooth and satisfying selection of songs that solidify her status alongside fellow Canadian songstress Jill Barber. Highlights include And Still We Move, Pretty Words and the gentle touch of Nobody’s Bird, each of which showcase strong songwriting paired with authoritative arrangement and accompaniment. Little Sway is an excellent effort by an emerging artist with a very bright future, and a perfect fit for a soiree of whisky-sours or a late night Bailey’s over ice.

The Tall Islands
Salsa Celtica

Listeners looking to spice-up their playlist palate will love this one; a unique hybrid of Latin and traditional Celtic music, The Tall Islands is the 6th release from Scottish-South American dancehall divas Salsa Celtica. The customs-crossing collective gets down and dirty with twelve terrific tunes that will have hips swayin’ and shoulders shakin’ from the opening salvo to the closing chorus. Tracks like Primavera, Descagra Gaelicia, and An Danns Elegua caress the soul, while the sexy Rumba Del Mar and Yo Me Voy II bring the body-heat. More than a collection of up-tempo numbers, however, this is a powerful example of the contemporary Celtic Diaspora, where collisions in culture leave a wake of musical possibilities; seventeen musicians from five countries make for one rollicking recording.

The High Kings
Friends For Life

Like architecture, songwriting is both an art and science where unique elements are molded into a standing structure. With Friends For Life, the fourth release from Dublin’s The High Kings, all of the pieces are in place; strong arrangements and production lay a solid foundation upon which the instrumentation – guitars, banjo, accordion, fiddle, tin whistle and percussion – splash colour and flavor. Soaring vocal harmonies are sprinkled atop all twelve tracks, bringing style and soul to each construct of chords. That deus ex machina, a true Irish trait, means the young quartet’s music – by turns tender and tough – is more than the sum of its parts. And, like the songs of Mumford & Sons, The Dubliners and The Waterboys, it is built to last.

Mogwai
Rave Tapes

Glasgow-based ‘post-rock’ quintet Mogwai enjoys great critical and popular acclaim across Europe and elsewhere, though success has largely eluded them in North America. Perhaps the band’s atmospheric sounds are too subtle for mass-commercialized markets. The loss is ours, sadly, as Rave Tapes runs the ethereal and emotional gamut, a hypnotic – and mostly instrumental – sonic soundtrack of guitars, moog synthesizers and live percussion (no digital drum sampling here). The result is a moving mélange of music that sits somewhere between Pink Floyd and Sonic Youth, Philip Glass and Radiohead; intelligent, progressive, artsy and avant-garde. While the ‘surf & scan’ crowd might not take to Mogwai’s lengthier and complex compositions, it is unlikely that the band will adapt to market demand. And here’s hoping they never do.

The Stanfields
For King and Country

I once asked Leonard Cohen when he knew that he had written a good song. He replied that a good song was one that could hold its own without lavish orchestration and production; one that sounded strong on only an acoustic guitar or solo piano. Nova Scotia stalwarts The Stanfields do just that on For King and Country, a stripped-down ten-song trek into Celtic terrain that showcases the band’s love for a sure and simple song. Highlights include the rollicking Whistle and a Grin, the rootsy Up the Mountain, and the Springsteen-inspired numbers A Free Country and Vermillion River. Going ‘unplugged’ is a good step for a great young band looking to expand their listening audience. Certainly, Mr. Cohen would approve of this excellent effort.

Kizzy Meriel Crawford
Temporary Zone

How this one slipped through the cracks is beyond me. The young mixed-race, Welsh speaking singer-songwriter bares her Bajan soul with a strong and spirited six song selection. Raised on trad, roots, r’n’b, reggae and soft jazz, the 17 year-old describes her sound as ‘folk-fusion’ – an apt account as Temporary Zone stands upon the shoulders of musical giants Tracy Chapman, Tuck & Patti, Cassandra Wilson and Sade, yet shines with a sure sense of self. As such, this isn’t your usual singer-songwriter fare, as Crawford seamlessly winds and weaves her way through each melody with a heartfelt, and sometimes haunting, authenticity unmatched by her peers. In an oversaturated marketplace, where a girl and her guitar are a dime-a-dozen, ‘Kizzy’ rises above the noise.

Gillian Boucher
Attuned

Following up on the great critical and popular acclaim of her 2009 debut recording Elemental, Cape Breton fiddler Gillian Boucher hits home with Attuned, a terrific ten-track trip through traditional and contemporary musical territory. Accompanied by guitar virtuoso Seph Peters, toes will be tappin’ with Feisty Farral O’Gara, Jigaroo and Reeling. The quieter Neil Gow’s Lament and O’er the Moor Among the Heather showcase Boucher’s subtle and supple finger-stylings, while Marnie Swanson is both plush and poised. The frolic of Gaelic Medley and Asturian Jig Set work well, harkening listeners back to a time when a fun, festive soiree meant sitting alongside friends and family in the parlour with a hot cuppa’ tea and a dram of the good stuff. An excellent and inspired effort.

Franz Ferdinand
Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions

Scottish nerd-pop rockers Franz Ferdinand return with their fourth full-length studio recording, their first in four years. Ringing guitars, bopping beats, cheesy keys, hearty hooks and catchy choruses abound through all of the album’s ten tracks. And that’s the problem. While songs like Right Action, Love Illumination, Bullet and Brief Encounters each hold their own, there is a staleness here – like its 2005 all over again. Even the infectious Stand on the Horizon can’t save the Glasgow quartet from sitting in the shadows of their indie peers, a pale imitation of Arcade Fire. As such, Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions is a wrong step for the band, and a prompt that, to the fickle musical ear, it is no longer hip to be square.

Chvrches
The Bones of What You Believe

At the other end of Glasgow’s sonic spectrum, and on the cutting edge of nu-music, is Scottish synthpop trio Chvrches. Touches of Prince, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush and the Cocteau Twins pepper the band’s debut effort, by turns ethereal and energized. Outspoken and often controversial vocalist Lauren Mayberry soars like doves over an array of electronic drums and keyboards. The highlights here, among a sea of pleasant surprises, are slap-happy tracks The Mother We Share, Gun, Lungs, Strong Hand, and the uber-moody Tether and You Caught the Light. Make no mistake; The Bones of What You Believe isn’t the latest round of re-hashed 80’s re-takes – this is avant-garde pop at its finest, and the real deal for drinking, dancing or curling up on the couch.

Jasper Coal
Drowning the Shamrock

The deep South might not be the first place that comes to mind when considering Celtic music, but Birmingham, Alabama-based sextet Jasper Coal might have you thinking differently. The opening pipes of Big Jig Set, the rousing chorus of Crooked Jack and the rollicking fiddle of Jamie Raeburn highlight this ten-song effort with style and swagger. The banjo, acoustic guitars and tin whistles accentuate the positive on Gather Up the Pots, Step it Out Mary and The Foggy Dew, and the acapella Parting Glass is a fine way to ring out 2013. Interestingly, the band shows its southern roots with the faintest traces of blues, bluegrass and gospel. To that end, Drowning the Shamrock might signal a new hybrid in the ever-evolving Celtic musical canon.