Cape Breton music is the long-lost (and entirely too neglected by the greater music world) Canadian cousin of Scottish traditional music and, in the past couple of decades, has been undergoing a major revival, in which Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac have played important parts.
Lamond is best-known for her enchanting Gaelic language vocals and her exceptional knowledge of old Cape Breton folk tunes. She's also an excellent accordion player, demonstrated on three of this album's tracks. MacIsaac is a fiddle and traditional step dance star, from a family known for just that (the MacIsaac family is a large and extended clan that includes some of Cape Breton's best-known musical names). Though the two have toured together and worked on various musical projects over the years, Seinn (pronounced "shane") is their first recorded album as a designated duo -- and about time, too!
Seinn is fresh and richly textured, with a nice variety of old tunes, new compositions, fiddle breakdowns, vocal ballads, all mixed and matched as these talented women saw fit. The album manages to capture the essence of that particular joy of musicians who really love playing together, and though the tunes span the emotional range from chipper to melancholy, it never takes that dreaded turn toward the morose.
The album opens with a barnburner: titled "Yellow Coat," it's actually a set containing "The Lass with the Yellow Coat," "The Boys of Ballinchalla," "Angus the Winemaker," and "The Green Fields of Glentown," a well-chosen collection of instrumentals that sort of drives home the point that this album really is about a diverse selection of music, and is most definitely set apart from Mary Jane Lamond's previous ballad-heavy releases (which are, it should be noted, exquisite and worthy of a place in any good Celtic music lover's home collection). You don't have to wait long for Lamond's gorgeous voice, though -- track 2 is the lovely, lilting "Air A Ghille Tha Mo Run," described in the liner notes as a "country love song" collected from Donald John MacArthur of Grand Mira, and which is followed by "Oran An T-Saighdeir" ("The Soldier's Song"), a song that traveled to Cape Breton from Scotland.
Track 4 is one of my favorites on Seinn. Called "Keeping Up With Calum," it's a tune that MacIsaac wrote, inspired by her adorable but slightly destructive toddler, Calum. As the mother of an adorable but slightly destructive toddler myself (mine's called Malcolm), well, it hit home, moreso than instrumental fiddle tunes usually do. What can I say? I'm a sucker for songs for and about kids, especially when there's clearly a sense of humor involved. Indeed, it has a loping rhythm and a fast-paced melody that pretty well evokes the feeling you get when the wee darling has once again unfolded all of the laundry, but in the cutest possible way...
Next comes "Rinn Mi Corr is Naoi Mile," a vocal number featuring Lamond and special guest Mairi Smith, a traditional Cape Breton ballad singer. Following that is "Angus Blaise," a set of tunes (one of which was written for MacIsaac's other son, Angus) which features her cousin Ashley MacIsaac on piano, a rare treat, as Ashley is better known as a fiddler. Following that is "Hoireann O Rathill Iu O," an old ballad that somehow sounds quite contemporary here, and which is uniquely punctuated with a traditional tune called "Mother's Delight," played by Ms. MacIsaac on the mandolin.
Next up, we've got the "Seudan A'Chuain" ("Jewels of the Ocean"), a languid contemporary fiddle tune written by Allan MacDonald, which MacIsaac punctuates with the traditional reel "Lad O'Beirnes," and on which her fiddling is particularly noteworthy. Following that is the haunting ballad "Oran A'Mheirlich," one of the more dramatic songs on the album. Next up, a quick and exceptionally catchy tune set called "Boise Monsters" (another nod to MacIsaac's young Angus), followed by "Taladh Na Beinne Guirme" ("The Blue Mountain Lullaby"), a ballad written by Jeff MacDonald and Brian O hEadhra that was commissioned by the International Celtic Colours Festival and which is given a really lovely and understated treatment here. And finally, the album wraps up with another piece that sounds very contemporary, but which is built of traditional elements (a Cape Breton lullaby supplies the lyrics, and the tunes are traditional, with extra parts from Stuart MacNeil). The last song probably shows off the two artist's true collaborative skills better than any other on the album, and finishes it off in a very strong way.
All-in-all, a winner, one that immediately found itself a place in my permanent collection. My one complaint, and I'd like to think that it really is a very tiny one and doesn't really affect my ability to enjoy Seinn, is that the liner notes feature the Gaelic lyrics to the songs, but no English translations. We get quick descriptions of the stories behind the songs, but I like a translation when I can get my hands on one. Other than that, though, it's a pretty darn near perfect bit of tradition-heavy contemporary Celtic music, and one that I wholeheartedly recommend.
Seinn was released on September 18, 2012 on Turtlemusik Records. Total playing time is 53 minutes.