Jaiya, Firedance -- Songs for the Winter Solstice (Jaiya 2003)
Jaiya, Beltane -- Songs for the Green Time (Jaiya 2005)
Full Gael, Traditional Music with Celtic Roots (Full Gael, 2006)
Liam O'Maonlai, Rian (Rian Records, 2005)
Liz Carroll & John Doyle, In Play (Compass 2006)
Casey Driessen, 3D (Sugar Hill, 2006)
Dougie McLean, Inside the Thunder (Dunkeld, 2005)

Subtropical Brisbane in midwinter is a funny place. The days are like the British Summer (without the rain): bright, cool but with a warm sun that can be deceptive. It's the evenings here that I love. The temperature drops and occasionally it might get a whisker cold. The sky is clear enough to be soaked with stars and although it's not remotely in the same league as winters in Britain, Canada or even Tasmania to the south, a lot of people light their heating stoves. And that's where I am right now. Feet up, in my favourite chair, PowerBook on my lap, looking into the flames. Times like this I can almost imagine I am home in Kent. Almost. I even have a glass of Young's Double Chocolate Stout here, next to the stack of CDs and notes I've made. With the exception of my old cat, Wilbur, looking like a giant furry comma on the rug, I'm alone. The fire is banked, the glass full, so I guess I'm ready.

I'm going to review the two Jaiya albums, Firedance -- Songs for the Winter Solstice and Beltane -- Songs for the Green Time together, because that's pretty much how I listened to them. Hailing from Mayne Island, off the coast of British Columbia, this lovely three-piece is a mix of Celtic harp, subtle accordion, and two voices, with guitar, whistle and drums added when needed. If you think along the same thread as Loreena McKennit, Secret Garden, perhaps a dash of early (pre-synth) Clannad, you'd get a pretty good idea of their style. 'Jaiya' means 'a celebration of victory' in Sanskrit and 'bringing forth' in Hindi, and it's just about one of the most appropriate names I've come across for a long while (and as someone who spends a bit of time thinking up band names and the like, I'm fierce jealous!). Gentle, sweeping songs are permeated by long, oft-times rambling tunes that sound delightfully improvised. The vocals, which head more towards a classical style rather than the folkish delivery of someone like McKennit, are shared by Lael Whitehead and Miranda Brown, and they compliment each other wonderfully. Kim Darwin's accordion is wonderfully sympathetic, and is a distinctive voice by itself. Songs and tunes are a mix of adapted traditional folk songs, carols and original material, and I just have to acknowledge the cover art by Lauren Iredale, which is very eye-catching. The two albums are themed towards Winter and Spring, with the earlier Firedance sounding somewhat darker, which, given it's title, is appropriate. This is music to relax to. It's unobtrusive enough to work along with, but be warned, I occasionally found myself staring off into the distance, lost in some deep thought they'd coaxed me into.

Full Gael is another three-piece, but this time the more traditional trinity of flute, fiddle and guitar. Well, okay, the flutist also plays mandolin, Scottish small pipes, harmonica and bodhran, and all three of the members sing, but I'd've had no easy segue there! As the title of the CD so cunningly tells you, this is an album of Traditional Music with Celtic Roots. Familiar tunes such as 'Star of Munster,' 'Humours of Tulla,' the 'Kerfunten Jig' and the 'Mountain Road' sit alongside a couple of popular songs, the 'Leaving of Liverpool' and the 'Ballad of Saint Anne's Reel'. The notable exceptions are the songs, 'Nellie J. Banks,' and 'The Last Shanty,' a delightful a cappella piece that is probably the standout on the album. That's not to suggest that the rest of the tunes and songs are of lesser quality, far from it. This is a nicely played album that left me smiling, but I've just got to the stage where what really grabs me is something a little different, be it new tunes, or really cool reworkings of the old ones. But then, I listen to a lot of this music, so I'm probably being a little harsh. Actually, I am being a bit harsh. The tune sets are thoughtfully put together (it's harder to make them blend than it sounds) and the overall quality is great. Note to self: Stop being such a MusicNazi.

Damn the price of Double Chocolate Stout that I can only afford one bottle. Still, it makes it special. For a brief moment there I thought about grabbing the Jameson's, but then these reviews would probably rapidly degenerate into a messy ramble about blackberries, oak trees, badgers and other odd things. So, back I sit with a lovely bowl of coffee that weighs more than the laptop. Hmmm. No handles. Actually, if this review stops mid-word, then it probably means I've spilt it all over myself and am currently dancing around the room cursing like a pirate and slapping at my scalded groin.

OK, Liam O'Maonlai. Where to begin... Well, there are a whole bunch of people that I admire, I mean really admire for various reasons. It's an odd list, one that always gives out a few laughs when we've been hitting the ales down at the pub and the topic comes up. The likes of Geldof (musically and politically), Billy Connolly, Jamie Oliver -- that one particularly gets a chuckle. Apologies to any who may not have heard of him, but he's a young British 'celebrity chef' with the most overwhelming passion for what he does. I think that's the overriding theme with people I admire. Passion. I think it comes from finding what you're put here to do, and just doing it. Liam O'Maonlai is on the list. Near the top. If the name's not familiar, then not to worry. Liam is the lead singer with the Hothouse Flowers, among many other things. I was going to tangent off at this point into a review of a recent Hothouse Flowers gig here in Brisbane (the first for nine years), but I'm getting alarmed at the time, and I still have a couple of CDs to chat about yet. Let me just say, no demand, that if the Flowers are coming to your town soon (and they're touring the US and UK at the moment), then go. Don't hesitate. Forget all you think you may know or not know about the Hothouse Flowers and just fork out for a ticket. I promise you will not be disappointed. It was the single best gig I've seen in years, if not ever. Really.

Liam's Rian (a Gaelic word roughly meaning 'mark' or 'trace') is his first solo album, and it's a fair side-step from the Celtic soul of Hothouse Flowers. Utterly impossible to categorise. Rian is a mixture of Irish and . . . I guess ethnic world music. The album announces itself with a hypnotic drumming piece called 'Avanyu Intro' that is a mixture of rain sticks and bodhran, and it gives you a pretty good idea of what you are in for. Then it's on to 'Ar nAthair' ('The Lord's Prayer' by Sean O Riada). And it's here that you realise just how special this album is. When O'Maonlai's hypnotically deep voice comes in over the top of an instrument that I honestly can't identify (though it makes me think of the late Ali Farka Toure, and there is a deep Malian influence in this album) I was instantly taken away. Tin whistles, voices, drumming... it's a bizarre mix that just works. One track will be a beautiful galloping rhythmic chant, the next, a lone tin whistle rendition of 'The Dear Irish Boy' or a Gaelic a cappella of 'White's Daughter from the Valley'. Physically, it's a beautiful CD too. Handwritten notes are sandwiched between O' Maonlai's artwork, making it feel very personal. But this isn't an album for everyone, and as O' Maonlai states in the inside of the notes: "This work, to the best of my ability, is imperfect. The perfection comes between the one singing and the listener."

One musical combination that never fails to excite me is John Doyle and Liz Carroll. In Play is their latest album, and as far as I can gather, it's a recording of the show they take on the road. Funny thing is, I just cannot recall how I know that. I must have read it somewhere. Technically, this is their first together, but they have a musical partnership that goes back a fair way, and in my mind, this is almost like the third album, after Carroll's Lost in the Loop and Lake Effect. There's really not that much I can say about them that the music doesn't say for itself. Doyle's guitar playing is as powerful, subtle, knowing, unpredictive as always (and he slips in a nice bit of bouzouki too). And Carroll, well, if I say that her fiddle playing was the inspiration behind a main character in one of my stories, then you might get an idea about how much I love her. It's a rare thing, but these two have a deep musical connection. I'd truly love to see these two playing live, just to watch the body language and subtle communication. Some of the syncopated parts in 'O'Rourke's' are just jaw dropping. As on Liz's other albums, most of the tunes are original compositions, and they're just beautiful. It really won't be long before the tunes start appearing in other bands' repertoires, and that's just about the highest praise one can get.

Casey Driessen's 3D is just a dirty, dirty album. Bear with me here, because that's absolutely not a bad thing! He's new to me. The album cover made me pause, as it's a peculiar portrait of him dressed in what I'd call a traditional bluegrass shirt (fiddle scroll nicely positioned as a tie), with flaming orange hair and goatee, wearing what can only be described as a pair of the most hideously spectacular spectacles ever seen. Imagine pilot's goggles mated to a pair of 3D glasses and you get the idea. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I took the CD with me on a long car trip and loaded it in. 3D starts with an odd droning siren that turns into the most twisted and dark fiddle tune I've heard for a long time. This whole album conjures up images of a low-lit venue, candles, coffee, red, red wine, walls dripping with crimson velvet and sticky cigar smoke (but without the stinky coughing factor). A low down, dirty fiddle mixing it up with saucy slide guitars, throbby bass, perfect percussion, interwoven with the marvelous Bela Fleck and his miraculous talking banjo... It's quite a unique album. Not Irish, not bluegrass, not country, just Casey. Even tunes I know well such as 'Jerusalem Ridge' are given the red velvet treatment. There are a couple of great vocal tracks too, but these seem more like short intermissions between the filthy tunes. The beige purists will probably hate it, but it's wonderful.

And so it seems only fitting that I end this with the new album Inside the Thunder from Scotland's Dougie McLean. There's something wonderfully cleansing and calming about Dougie's music. It's in his lyrics, his beautiful guitar playing, and the incredible sense of place that permeates his music in general. This is, I think, his 19th album, and though it's been three or so years since the last one, Inside the Thunder continues on from the excellent Who am I with the same mix of storytelling, songs about the land, its characters and adventures. This is mainly Dougie with his new band, though there are a couple of songs with just him and his guitar (which, if truth be told, I prefer somewhat, and Dougie's Live from the Ends of the Earth remains my favourite of all his albums). As with most of Dougie's recordings, his love and pride for his homeland shine through. The opening track, 'Not Lie Down,' sets the tone and pace perfectly, and the album just drifts along from there. For me, the highlights are the gentle farming song 'Strathmore' (where one of the contributors is listed as 'Wee Grey Fergie Tractor, 1947 TE20), the glorious 'Eternally You' and an achingly wonderful tribute song to fiddler Johnny Cunningham, who was a close friend from the Silly Wizard days. A beautiful album.

Well that's it. Coffee is all gone, Wilbur is sitting by her bowl, looking up at me trying to communicate with just slow blinking that I'm a terrible git who starves his poor wee cat. I think I'll finish off with a quote from the back cover of Casey Driessen's album, 3D. He seems to say exactly what I'd like to write here:

enjoy life,
time is precious.
enjoy art and music,
it is all that you see and hear.
dream. imagine. create
discover your soundtrack.
see you somewhere

[Paul Brandon]