Robin Bullock and Michel Sikiotakis, The Irish Girl
(Dorian Recordings, 2002)
Ballycotton, Mondland (Mecki Records, 2003)
Various Artists, Celtic Spirit (KRL, 2003)
Celtic music, like everything else, isn't what it used to be. What can you expect from a CD featuring a Frenchman of Greek extraction teamed with an American, or a group of Austrians, or a whole series of Scots?
The Irish Girl brings together Robin Bullock, American master of the strings and keyboard, and Michel Sikiotakis, twice All Ireland Champion of the tin whistle. The wooden flute and tin whistle soar over the hypnotic rhythms of guitar, bouzouki, mandolin and keyboard. They soothe and uplift at the same time. Even the jigs and reels are sprightly rather than frenetic.
Indeed, this CD is almost too soothing, as I found out while driving through Newfoundland's Gros Morne National Park. The music suited the mist-shrouded Long Range Mountains perfectly, but it put passengers and driver to sleep -- not good in that terrain. The pieces on this recording are a mix of centuries-old music, including some by Turlough O'Carolan, with more recent works. "The Flight of the Eaglets," for instance, laments three brothers killed in World War II, while "The Depth Charge" is by Bullock himself. Bullock and Sikiotakis did all their own arrangements. Many are adapted from fiddle or harp, quite an accomplishment. I had never heard most of the tunes before, so I can't say how close their versions are to the originals. "The Rocky Road to Dublin" I recognized easily. The arrangement is somewhat embellished from the Ryan's Fancy version I know (also for tin whistle), and I'm not sure it still fits all the words in the same places, but it sounds good. As for "Galway Bay," however, there must be more than one tune by that name because it certainly doesn't sound like the song my mother sang me to sleep with.
The picture on the CD cover is exquisite, "La Ghirlandata" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, showing as it does a red-haired girl playing the harp. The liner notes are extensive. There are several Web sites devoted to Robin Bullock and Michel Sikiotakis.
Mondland is anything but soothing. Ballycotton, an Austrian group which has changed members several times over the years, brings an energetic style to their music. They're for people who either have no preconceptions about Celtic music or want to lose the ones they have. Ballycotton's arrangements are dizzyingly complex. "Me In The Middle" and "Valhalla" are just two examples of pieces that start with one theme and then add acoustic layer on layer. If you concentrate you can still pick the individual themes out, but it's better to let go and have it all wash over you. "Letting Come" starts with a light, airy violin, but turns into the frantic fiddle of "Letting Go." Every time the throbbing, shaking jig tries to slow down, the wild fiddle is back again. The pair end with a long plucking riff straight out of a hard-driven country song.
Unlike the other two CDs in this review, Mondland actually has some vocals. "JoEh" starts with a countdown in German. I'm not sure what language the words are in "Bettelwalzer;" they don't sound like German to me, but I can't really catch them. Several cuts, including "JoEh," "The Flood" and "Valhalla," contain similar chanting of syllables that sound to me like "yoh-oh-ay". (Note: this bears no resemblance to the "yoh-ho-ho" in pirate songs.) The band members' fiddles, percussion and mandolin are joined by cello on "JoEh" and "Variations On A Moment" and by bass on "The Flood Radio Edit."
The CD cover art is fascinating. It includes Celtic knotwork superimposed on ripples, clouds, either bubbles or a nebula (perhaps an illustration of Celtic cosmic string theory) and what I hope is a planet transiting the sun and not a band member's bloodshot eye. There are no liner notes. Visit Ballycotton's Web site.
Celtic Spirit is a different kettle of burgoo again, a compilation of pieces traditional and new taken from other KRL recordings. The artists include Tannas, JCB (the former Jura Ceilidh Band), Anna Mhoireach and Ceol na gCapall (Barbara Gray and Wilbert Garvin). Since I wasn't familiar with any of the pieces on this CD, I honestly can't say whether the arrangements are faithful or not. They all sound beautiful, without the soporific properties of The Irish Girl (less percussion, I think), but I don't know what they're "supposed" to sound like. I also don't notice any great differences in style between artists. Frankly, I presume this is the whole point. This CD is a neatly-packaged way to taste the work of a group of KRL's competent artists. If you like one, you will probably like them all.
The cover photo, also printed on the CD itself, is of a pale sunrise (or sunset) over water. Liner notes are rudimentary. Most of the individual musicians do not have their own Web sites, but information is available about them at KRL's site; Anna Mhoireach's site; at Coila's, and at omnibus sites.
Will you enjoy any of these recordings? Yes, but you must choose wisely. Pick The Irish Girl if you want to be soothed and transported. Mondland is for you if you want something hearty and earthy, if you don't care whether you understand all the words so long as the music catches you. Celtic Spirit is blander, a competent compendium of pleasant background music.