Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Alex Reidinger - "The Pleasures of Hope"

The Pleasures of Hope, by American multi-instrumentalist Alex Reidinger, is a collection of traditional Irish tunes that calls to mind gently rolling hills and pub sessions. Alex is quite proficient on the fiddle, harp and concertina, and this recording features her talents on all three instruments. Though there is some layering of her instruments together, for example fiddle & harp, on a track, each track still retains a primary instrument as the focal point

The album starts off with the concertina-driven Hanly's Tweed, a great foot-tapping set. The subsequent concertina tracks, as well as most of the fiddle tracks, are reminiscent of some Irish sessions I've been to; fun and enjoyable but nothing that really stands out. A couple of the fiddle tracks at the end of the recording, notably The Bird in the Bush and Cro' Na nGabhnar, have edge and spunk to them and bring the recording to a nice close. The surprise here is the harp tracks. They have a contemporary flair and these are definitely the stand-out tracks. My favorites, which are also my overall favorite tracks of the recording, are Crabs in the Skillet and Paddy Fahy's/Lad O'Beirne's.

Alex is still quite young and The Pleasures of Hope provides a taste of things to come. I think she is going to have a great career ahead of her.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Elisabeth Vatn - "Piper On The Roof"

Piper On The Roof is the recent release by Norway's Elisabeth Vatn, a bagpiper who specializes in the Swedish bagpipes. Even though I had listened to some of the tracks on her website prior to getting the album, Piper still caught me quite by surprise.

While some of the pieces may be based on traditional or classical works, they've been turned inside out and given a totally contemporary treatment. It's jazz, new age, blues, and electronica all rolled into an avant-garde package. This is an album that needs to be listened to more than once to hear all of the layers. There are a few pieces, such as Fanfare, Bagging, and Pipes of Peace, where Vatn's piping is the focal point. However, there are just as many other numbers (Springlek After Troskari Erik, Noor/Bjørka, and the 7-minute space odyssey Reed Poetics) where the pipes weave in and out and become part of the sonic fabric. Piper features three fully vocal tracks, the most startling of which is Danny Du (the well-known "Danny Boy" sung in Norwegian). Even though it's given the same modern treatment as the other pieces, it still seems out of place.

My favorite pieces on this album are Bagging, with it's Bolero-esque riffs, and the trance-inducing chanting of Noor/Bjørka, though I also enjoy the vocals on Visa Från Utanmyra-Dusse Oktii. Piper On The Roof is a rather seductive walk on the wild side and one I enjoy taking more and more often.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My Favorite Fiddlers

I've loved fiddle music for a long time and there are so many amazing fiddlers out there that I deeply admire. This is a list of my top favorites - the ones who inspire me the most. While they are all excellent "traditional" musicians, it is their original compositions that I am the most impressed and awed by. And, yes, the majority of this list is comprised of Scottish fiddlers :) To find out more about any of them or to hear some of their music, just click on their names.

Lauren MacColl - my favorite fiddler overall. Her playing is so incredibly beautiful and exquisite and I am truly in awe of her talent. Her music is quite magical in general, but few can match the emotion she puts into her slow airs. She plays with a skill far beyond her years.

Annbjørg Lien - absolutely amazing hardanger fiddler from Norway. I've admired her for a long time. I love that she's not afraid to take risks and explore new territory, yet even her most experimental pieces are rooted in tradition. Definitely my favorite Norwegian fiddler.

Sarah-Jane Summers - a wonderful Scottish fiddler who plays both the standard and the hardanger fiddles. Her music is so textural and lovely. There is something very exciting and addictive about her tunes.

Duncan Chisholm - amazing Highland fiddler. Like Lauren, his slow airs will leave you aching. His music, in general, is incredibly beautiful.

Katherine Liley - another delightful Scottish fiddler! I really like her playing style. She has a sort of "grunge" fiddle sound going on that gives her slow tunes a bit of rawness and the fast tunes a playful edge. I find her music fresh & fun.

Alasdair Fraser - the first Scottish fiddler I ever heard. He truly is a master of the fiddle and in a league of his own. I'm awed by the sounds he can coax from his fiddle. He has done a lot of good things for traditional music, especially here in the U.S.

Natalie MacMaster - she is the one who started it all for me. I saw her on a fluke 12+ years ago and it was the first time I'd seen/heard fiddle-driven trad music. I haven't looked back since. I've really enjoyed listening to her music evolve over the years. She works ceaselessly to promote the traditional music of Cape Breton.

Annlaug Børsheim - she is an incredibly talented hardanger fiddler from Norway, though she also has a fine voice! Her compositions are out of this world and have been performed by numerous other folks, including Sarah-Jane Summers. Ranks second only to Annbjørg on my list of favorite Norwegian fiddlers.

Hanneke Cassel - my favorite fiddler from this side of the pond. Her style ranges from edgy & fiery to tender & poignant. She has a very contemporary feel to her and she doesn't hesitate to incorporate new styles.

Sigrid Moldestad - another fantastically talented hardanger fiddler from Norway. Not only do I love her solo work, I also love her work with Spindel and Gamaltnymalt. A very fresh approach to traditional music.

Catriona MacDonald - I first heard Catriona as part of the String Sisters project. Fantastic Shetland fiddler who blends traditional and contemporary sounds. I enjoy her work with Blazin Fiddles just as much as her solo stuff.

Shona Mooney - a fiddler from the Scottish Borders. Though I've heard her works with Border Young Fiddles and The Shee, I think her solo stuff is incredible. It has a bit more experimental flavor than that of most of the other Scottish fiddlers.

Patsy Reid - most of her stuff is fairly traditional but her latest solo work is a blending of classical and traditional and it's phenomenal! It really showcases her talents as a composer. It's one of the most exciting recordings I've heard in a while.

Susanne Lundeng - a fiddler from the northern region of Norway. Her original compositions have an edginess, almost a wildness, to them that I haven't really heard amongst most other Norwegian fiddlers. She melds traditional music with contemporary styles beautifully.

Celtic Fiddle Festival - originally Kevin Burke, Christian LeMaitre, and Johnny Cunningham (later Andre Brunet after Johnny's passing). All of them are phenomenal fiddlers in their own right, but I love their work as a group even more than their individual stuff, which is saying a lot.

Fiddlers' Bid - there are 4 fiddlers in the group, most of whom also have solo careers. They hail from the Shetland Islands and, moreso than with other groups/artists, there is a strong Nordic influence evident in their music. I find their music a joy to listen to.

Jen Cloher and The Endless Sea

Australian singer-songwriter Jen Cloher and The Endless Sea can best be described as Folk Noir, with doses of indie rockabilly mixed in. Her lyrics are smart and introspective, delivered in subdued tones reminiscent of Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins. The effect is that each song feels as though it's a secret meant for your ears only.

Jen has 2 recordings to date, with a third due for release in April. The first recording, Permanent Marker (2005), is a 4-song EP of sparse, dark songs. Two of those songs made it onto her full-length recording Dead Wood Falls (2006). This album features her Endless Sea band more prominently and they add a wonderful depth to the arrangements. Though there is a certain melancholy that flows through the album, it never becomes depressing. My favorite tracks are "Rain" and "Peaks and Valleys". Since that time, the Endless Sea has expanded, most of the members also making up Laura Jean's band. The new album, Hidden Hands, promises a broader, bigger sound and sees the group moving from 'singer backed by a band' to being a band as a whole. There is so much musical talent & creativity in the group that I'm really looking forward to their future projects.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Laura Jean - "Eden Land"

Revisiting Australia, my current obsession is "Eden Land", the second full length release by Laura Jean. The artist herself is also a new discovery for me. I came across her recently when I was exploring Jen Cloher's music, as Laura Jean & her band currently form Jen's "Endless Sea" band.

"Eden Land" set out to be a concept album and it definitely achieved that. The 9 tracks flow into each other beautifully, carrying the listener on a musical river from start to finish. While the tracks can stand on their own, they lose a bit of their potency & magic when not heard in context. I have to confess that the first time I listened to the album, I felt a bit like I was in an opium den (or at least how I imagined I would feel in such a place). Not that it was a bad thing. The music induced this sort of dreamy, floating, hypnotic sensation and I felt like I was waking from a dream when the music ended.

The opening track "Magic Unnamed/Eden Land" sets the mood for the rest of the album. The instrumentation is subtle, the backing vocals are ethereal - almost haunting, and Laura Jean's voice is deliciously soft and gentle. Even on later tracks, when the instrumentation becomes more pronounced, there are never any jarring sounds, nothing to break the spell. The lyrics throughout are very personal, as though she has opened a door into herself and allowed the listeners to follow her on this journey of self-discovery. My favorite tracks are the opening track and "Eve", though I really enjoyed the entire album

Crooked Fiddle Band = Crazy Fun

The Crooked Fiddle Band is an Australian band that has totally set me on fire! They play gypsy punk and it is crazy fun!! Their frenetic music is fueled by virtuosic fiddler Jess Randall, though she is very ably accompanied by Gordon Wallace (guitar, bouzouki, mandolin), Mark Stevens (double bass, charango), and Joe Gould (drum kit, junk, and traditional percussion). Their music combines elements of Middle Eastern, Celtic, Latin, and swing into fiery & occasionally sultry gypsy melodies.

They have two 6-track EP's out: The first is called, quite simply, EP (2006) and the second is Rise (2008). EP features one very passionate slow piece ('The Drowned Sun') and the rest of the pieces are at varying speeds of manic. "Fire Swing" and "The Butcher of Bessarabia" are my favorite pieces from EP. Rise showcases a greater range of music. It features 2 delightfully slower tracks ("Rain in the Morning" and "Angelique"), a totally wacky vocal track ("Run Leroy Run") and a 9 minute experimental extravaganza ("Rise of the Sapiens"). Whether fast or slow, their musical prowess is fantastic.

Their Last.fm page offers 2 free downloads - a track from each EP. Definitely give them a listen.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Synnøve Rognlien - "Undr"

"Undr" is the debut release by Norwegian singer Synnøve Rognlien. I quite recently came across Synnøve on Annbjørg Lien's page and decided to check her out. I can read and write a little Norwegian but can only understand about 1 in 50 words when it's spoken. Why, then, am I reviewing an album sung entirely in Norwegian? Because her music is amazing. Her voice is an exquisite instrument that carries me over a beautiful, gentle, almost hypnotic landscape.

Her music is a rich blending of acoustic, folk-based music with electronica, along with elements of jazz and Gregorian chant thrown in for good measure. I find "Undr" joyously refreshing. The two most straight-forward, melodic songs are "Som Bare Du Bar" and "Du Som Våker". Most of the other pieces rest more comfortably in the experimental vein. The most stunning song on this album is "Det Røde". The arrangement is very stark, highlighting Synnøve's emotion-laden voice. The album closes on a fantastic note with "Du". My favorite pieces are "Det Røde", "Serk", and "Du Som Våker", with "Du" not far behind.

This album is an incredible tapestry of sound that definitely warrants repeated listenings. You can hear 4 of the 11 tracks in their entirety on her MySpace page.

New Find - Rebekah Findlay

A new artist find for me is Rebekah Findlay, a young singer/songwriter from North Yorkshire. In addition to performing solo, she is also a member of the duo One Stone and the folk/"old-timey" group Blind Summat!

I stumbled across Rebekah quite by chance but I'm glad I did. Her original pieces are well-crafted & lovely (her song "Duty Bound" won the Klondike Song of the Year 2008) and the arrangements of the traditional songs are fantastic (she's a multi-instrumentalist), but it is her voice that has completely captivated me. It's very down-to-earth and intimate and capable of carrying a great deal of emotion. It's the sort of voice that makes you lean in and listen closely; a story-teller's voice. I really love listening to her sing.

She is currently working on a full-length solo album and is finalizing an EP with One Stone. Until those are released, you can get a taste of her music here, on MySpace or, better yet, go catch one of her gigs. I'm really looking forward to watching her career grow.