Dance tunes. Yup, that's where a lot of music in the folk traditions started out, and that's where these discs are taking it. Except that now fewer of us dance in the crossroads or in old barns, and more of us dance in dark rooms where mixing is an art form, and sound systems have become instruments integral to the music. Hell, folk music has been changing all along, as folks mixed and migrated, discovered new instruments and technologies, and just got on with playing irresistible tunes, now with irresistible beats to match, whether programmed or not. Let's face it, this music has always been dance music, now it's just been made suitable for rooms with strobes, full of sweaty people with instant access to music from all over the world. Inevitable really, folktronica.
Scottish supergroup Keltik Electrik have perhaps the most "trad" in their mix, even to the point of offering up tunes with recognizable names, remixed for a wild techno ride. The disc opens with "MacNeill's March", setting the tone for the rest of the disc: trad meets remix. Keltik Electrik are Jack Evans of Jock Tamson's Baims, Easy Club and Cauld Blast Orchestra, Gordon Duncan (bagpipes), Finlay MacDonald (bagpipes), Chris Stout (fiddle) and the late Tony Cuffe (vocals).
Scotland may be off the beaten track geographically, but the world and its music has landed here, with predictable results. "Trans-Highland Express" begins and ends with a lonely flute, augmented with a rain stick and something rather more electric shaking things up. "Waterloo Country" is a similar treatment for the pipes, although it maintains slower, more stately pace for longer...but the dancers will not be denied. "Disko Breizh" is another high point on this disc, offering up some variety in pacing and sensibilities. Throughout it's clear that that the Elektrik lads have given some thought to pacing and flow; as well, they know which tunes will work in an electronic medium. I thoroughly enjoyed this disc from start to finish. And speaking of finish, the last tune is an acoustic number by Tony Cuffe, a poem set to a melody and a cornerstone of his performances. Cuffe, whose life was sadly cut short, is a consummate singer, and even without knowledge of his passing, "Sae Will We Yet" makes the breath catch and the heart pause a beat.
Over on Skye, the Peatbog Faeries have been shaking things up for years. The first of their albums to be released on their independent label, Welcome... is just that. A little less insistent about the dance than Hotel Kaledonia, this disc seamlessly melds trad tunes into the electronic world without self consciousness or gimmicks. These lads have been around the block and it shows. The Faeries are Peter Morrison (pipes and whistles), Roddy Neilson (fiddle and vocals), Innes Hutton (bass, percussion, guitar and vocals), Tom Salter (guitar and vocals), Leighton Jones (keyboards), and Iain Copeland (drums, percussion, guitar and vocals).
As with Keltik Elektik, the tunes are prominent in the mix, and thoroughly at home there. Again, the album is well paced, and holds this reviewer's interest throughout. I particularly enjoyed "Gibbering Smit" and the easy-going flute of "A Taste of Rum." A little less insistent about getting up from the keyboard and onto the dance floor, this disc succeeds where lesser efforts fail: it preserves the spirit of the music, and is in no way watered down through over-production.
Speaking of the dangers of over-production, this reviewer has seen several groups of this ilk live, raced to the swag stand to trade some of her hard earned cash for a CD, and gotten home to find some watered down drivel that bore little resemblance to the wild and wooly live sound that had her drooling onto the jewel case. And that, dear readers, is the big danger with folktronica -- if your favorite band is kidnapped by a producer with New Age leanings and a marketing plan, good folk music will be lost in the studio. I digress, but don't say I didn't warn you. Caveat Emptor.
OK, back to the review. I want to go to back to Scotland. As far as I can tell, every little hamlet harbours some rad trad types with lots of electronic equipment in their garages. Hell, some of them have even invented instruments, as did Garry Finlayson of Shooglenifty with his souped up banjax. Ah, Shooglenifty. I've raved before, and I have to say that Arms Dealer's Daughter both takes the band into some new territory, and has won over this reviewer. In addition to the inventive Finlayson, Shooglenifty are Quee Macarthur on bass, taking over for Conrad Ivitsky, who has left the group, another newcomer, Tasmania native Luke Plumb on bouzouki ( replacing Ian Macleod), Angus Grant on fiddle, James Mackintosh on percussion, drums and piano, and Malcolm Crosbie on acoustic and electric guitars. As with several of the other groups playing what Shooglenifty call acid croft, the lads have been or are involved in numerous other projects, from Chillun, Sola, Sunhoney, Capercaillie, Mouth Music, James Grant, and Michael McGoldrick. In fact, for awhile it seemed that every disc I picked up from Scotland involved James Mackintosh, which does raise questions some question about my plans for a non-stop, wall to wall musical vacation there. For now I'll have to content myself with these discs.
Now, the first playing of this disc didn't thrill me as much as I'd hoped it would. Ok, so my expectations were a bit on the high side -- I've been a fan of the band for some time. But when I hit repeat, I realized why this disc is such a big step forward for this group. It's the tunes! They are much more prominent than on previous efforts, although as I mentioned in my review of Solas Shears the albums have been getting more like their live shows -- bringing the melodies out of the mix -- for some time. And it works. As well, the new blood, and the absence of Jim Sutherland on synthesizer, make this disc a departure, and a step forward in the Shoogle sound.
Having heard the band live, I can attest to the fact that Shooglenifty's wild sound is actually precisely planned, and played, and this time it's the melodies that drive the tunes. Make no mistake, this is still a heady mix -- the stripped down sound is by no means bare bones, but it's a more rollicking, relaxing ride; the fiddle and the banjo remain the anchors of the Shooglenifty sound. Newcomer Plum contributed several of the tunes, the opener "Glenuig Hall" and "Heading West," both with a tinge of the Balkans to my ear. Grant and Mackintosh also contributed some very successful material, but I have to say that I really liked Plumb's offerings, expecially "Tune for Bartley", which closes the album on an easy going note. This disc is likely to pleasantly surprise long time fans, and attract new ones with its accessibility and impeccable craftsmanship.
To the South, Horace X have been shaking things up, not only with their getup, but are probably one of the few bands to have played North American folk festivals (Winnipeg 2002) with a walking talking dj. Yes, a DJ and fiddler on the stage together in dayglo wigs, with a thoroughly original performance. Horace X fuses a Caribbean vocal style, mediteranean melodies, some ska beats and British Isles folk influences. And on Sackbutt, the group's high energy never stops! It's raucous and fun! And it doesn't let up, so be sure you're in the mood for a blast of pure energy before you spin this disc. Unlike the previous bands, the vocals are prominent throughout, although the styles vary, and if you don't like Simon Twitchin's toasting, this disc will get old fast. Joining him in dayflot madness are Hazel Fairbairn on fiddle, Pete Newman on clarinet and baritone sax, Fabian Bonner on bass, and Mark Russell on drums and everything else (well, that's what the liner notes say...).
Sackbutt, originally a medieval French trombone-like instrument, is now a psychedelic experience. From "Bad Lies", the opening track, to the bonus track "Turkno YoYo" it's a barrage of horns, fiddle and voice. I particularly liked "Mr. Simms - Vampire Mix" and the swingy "Blind Eye" because they capture that frenetic energy that the band generates. In fact, they remind me of nothing so much as another Omnium offering: 3 Mustaphas 3 for the energy and the Mediterranean references in the mix. If you liked the Mustaphas, check this out. You may find yourself wanting to throw this disc into the CD player with some less frenetic offerings just to break up the pace a bit -- but if you like heady, high energy music, this is the album for you. But, you've been warned.
Did I mention Scotland? Yes? And what about Finland? The land of the tango has been billed as the new Ireland because of the original, irresistible music that has come pouring out of this exotic place at the top of the world. And as far as I can tell, there's not a lot that's more exotic, or indeed inimitable than Wimme's yoiking, bolstered by 21st century sounds. Yoiks are often composed on the spot, reflecting something the singer has just experienced, often from nature. At the Calgary Folk Festival in 2001, I heard Wimme perform one such yoik, inspired by a lone dog he saw cavorting on the empty grounds in the early morning. Wimme Saari growls, groans, hums, and well, yoiks (in a word) his way through these songs, creating a trippy mix with the help of Jari Kokkonen on keyboards and programming, and Matti Wallenius on baglamas, banjo, guitar, mandolin and ukelele. This music must be experienced to be fully appreciated. It transports the listener to a new place, a wide open space where vocals float on an impeccable rhythm section. I've yet to meet someone who wasn't won over by Wimme's live performace, and I suspect that fans of the wild places of the world, whether in nature or within their minds will be drawn to this music. Although I hesitate to draw a comparison with powwow music because the beats are so much less complicated, and the vocals are done in chorus, if you could imagine one powwow singer surrounded by sophisticated percussion and rhythms, you might approximate Wimme's sound, particularly as it shared themes from the natural world with some North American aboriginal music. What's different here than the previous efforts is that the vocals are not built upon traditional melodies, nor is it fusing well known melodic signatures. The vocals are the centerpiece of the sound here, and Wimme's voice instrument that blends into the mix.
And Bárru? This is a great disc that should appeal to those who appreciate world music. And, like the previous groups, the beauty here is that there are no tourists -- Wimme is taking his own Sami traditions forward, showing that he is equally at home in the clubs as on the tundra. I particularly enjoyed "fádnu," with it's spacious vocals and insistant drone, and the opening tune "njavvi" or "torrent". "Kalkutta" is another wavering, wild piece that does seem to borrow from the place with that name, another standout track. But really there is no weak track on this disc, which has more variation in pacing and in the backing instrumentals than his earlier efforts, while retaining the emotive vocals and insistent rhythms. This is music you can feel deep in your bones. The lads have really mastered the way that they surround Wimme's yoiks with the instrumental elements, making this an accessible album that retains all of the unique charm that has made Wimme so much sought after. Highly recommended.
OK folktronica fans, that's it for this round of heady, trippy electronic music. As you might guess, the music editor snagged some great discs (again!), bringing you some exotic, danceable sounds. Thankfully, I don't have to pick, but if I did, mood would guide my choices. Need something with a lot of energy? Horace X, no doubt. Some trippy Celtic, flip some coins because they're all good. And for something exotic and wonderful, Wimme must be heard.
That's Keltik and Elektrik with a "K" on Jack
Peatbog Faeries can be found here.
Shooglenifty can be found here.
Horace X are here.
You can find Wimme on Northside's site.