Remarkably enough, it’s been almost a year to the day since I finished my reviews of the first Spinning Wheel CD, Selection 1999-2005, and Tune the Speed, a CD featuring some members of the same band in the now-defunct Smoky Finish. Those reviews initiated a series of e-mail exchanges between me and Bernhart Ruso, a mainstay of both bands. A few weeks ago, Bernhart asked me if I would write a review of the forthcoming CD from Spinning Wheel. Of course I said ‘sure!’ Earlier this week, he sent me the mp3s for all twelve tracks of Maid on the Shore as well as the liner notes and some other background information in Acrobat files.
This new release is certainly up to the high standards established by the earlier Spinning Wheel collection. All but two of the tracks are traditional, all feature vocals by Bernhart’s wife Danika, and all are very tastefully arranged. As I noted in my reviews of both the Spinning Wheel and Smoky Finish CDs, the members of this band are all Austrian. Yet they seem to have a great affinity for pan-Celtic music, and I mean that in the sense of fondness for as well as skill in playing.
The background material Bernhart sent explains the genesis of Maid on the Shore, a story worth sharing. It seems the band’s departing guitarist, Erich Schacherl, recorded tracks as a way of preserving the sound of his contribution to live performances that had taken place over the last few years. Members of the band (Bernhart, Danika and new guitarist Markus Sauschlager) liked what they heard and decided to build a CD off this work. Several musician friends, including two former members of Smoky Finish, Erich Schacherl and Klara Schiffermüller, added complexity to the acoustic arrangements. They did all the recording at Bernhart and Danika’s home (in their winter garden, precisely). And it sounds like they all had a great time working together!
Only five of the twelve tracks are actually in English. These include the title track (whose lyrics offer a clever twist on the more familiar ‘New York Girls’), a rollicking and rather light-hearted version of ‘Newry Highwayman,’ ‘The Lass of Glenshee,’ ‘Sixteen Come Next Sunday,’ and ‘Murdered Brother,’ one of the original Child ballads. Of the remaining songs, one is in French (the incredibly catchy ‘Deja Mal Mariee’—I found myself humming the tune after I’d listened to it just once). Two tracks are in Welsh (‘Dacw ‘Nghariad’ and ‘Ffarwel’); two are in Gaelic (‘In Aimsir Bhaint An Fheir’ and ‘Puirt-A-Beul’). One of the non-traditional tracks, ‘Tu Gitana,’ a waltz written by a Portuguese artist named Zeca Afonso, is in Galician. The other non-traditional track ‘Emoton,’ was composed by Finnish musicians Kari and Sirpa Reiman.
Danika’s exquisite voice with some overdubbing provides a nice continuity across the entire album. The mix keeps her voice forward so the lyrics are very clear. Most of the songs feature at least one fair maiden, which adds to the sense of thematic consistency. The arrangements are sufficiently different for each track so that the overall effect is one of rich texture and certainly of varied rhythm. I caught a kalimba on ‘Emoton.’ The harp on ‘Ffarwel’ gives it a very stately feel. ‘In Aimsir’ includes a long instrumental bridge that is actually a traditional Irish tune called ‘Out in the Ocean.’ The hurdy-gurdy on ‘Murdered Brother’ is just a little scary. Markus adds his guitar work to Erich’s original tracks. Bernhart and guest artist Stephan Steiner play nyckelharpa; Danika and guests Peter Beinhofer and Marek Poledna play accordion; Klara Schiffermüller contributes fiddle to several tracks, as well.
There is more than enough good material here to provide you with many enjoyable hours of listening and maybe even a little dancing!