Sunday, November 30, 2014

Gael and Blues

Listening to albums in a language other than my own is never a guaranteed proposition. Being a word guy, I like to know what's being sung, and great lyrics are often grist for the mill of argument, inspiration and aphorism. But every now and again what's being sung isn't the key, and Catriona Watt's Cadal Cuain (Ocean Sleep) is a great example. Watt is a native Gaelic speaker and sings in that tongue, but she uses her voice and the instrumentation to produce atmospheres within the song that communicate the meaning as much as lyrics might do if their meaning were known.

Watt's piano, flute and string-based instrumentation offers a firm foundation for her vocals, underlying the words without distracting from the sound of her singing. Her voice is probably the strongest and most effective tool in her kit, as she demonstrates in the a cappella opening track, "Ailein Duinn." The sprightly "A' Bhean Eudach" follows, proving your feet don't need to know what the words mean to get to moving. A return to a cappella singing, this time with sing-along harmonies, happens with "Ailein dhuinn A Ni 'Sa Naire," showcasing the range that Watt and her bandmates will deploy on their rest of the album. The skill and musicianship demonstrate why Watt won the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year Award in 2007.

In the end, Cadal Cuain is a lovely-sounding album but those who aren't followers of Scottish and Gaelic traditional music might wind up taking a pass unless they simply love the sound of a lovely voice and strong, dreamy melodies. Which is easy to do. But the advice either way is to purchase the actual CD, as the liner notes have translations of the songs. And fie on Foot Stompin' Records for not making a digital booklet available with the album download anyway.
By the nature of the roughness of the instruments and experimental nature of the process, almost all music started out as "tribal" or "folk" in one form or another. There were fiddlers before violinists and reed flutes before flautists. The fact that most people today put "bagpipes" in the context of crisp clattery snare drums and soldierly rows of jacketed, tammed and kilted pipers and "Amazing Grace," "Scotland the Brave" or "The Marine's Hymn" doesn't change their origins as a weird, wailing instrument of battle, clan rebellion and mourning.

So meet Clanadonia, a drum-and-pipe outfit heavy on the drums whose aim, according to their own Facebook page, is "to spread Bagpipe and Drum fuelled mayhem amongst the general public throughout the known world...then have coffee and perhaps a wee biscuit." The band has about a 20-year history but only two recorded albums, the second being just released. The first, Keepin' It Tribal, came out in 2007 and introduces them quite adequately.

Most of the numbers are instrumental and feature the up-tempo piping and thundering percussion that are Clanadonia's signature. "Sherramuir" is a musical arrangement of the Robert Burns poem "The Battle of Sherramuir." The vocals are adequate but not special, which lends some authenticity to the rough edges of the music. Some, like "Tyler's Lament," are more traditional pipe tunes without percussion that ride the waves of the wailin' reeds. "Samba Ya Bassa" combines the two styles, and then there are songs like "Tu-Bardh," named after the band's lead drummer Tu-Bardh Wilson (sometimes Wulsin) who looks like he just walked off the set of Braveheart. It opens with a pipe call, and then the drum rolls join, propelling the song at a speed Michael Flatley could only dream of, urged on by an occasional background howl from Wilson. If the Highlanders had played more music like this, even Englishmen might have danced.
"The blues" conjures up certain images and ideas, both about its practitioners and what they say in their songs. Much of the time blues songs are straight laments, every now and again with a jump number slipped between the layers of sadness to provide some room for dancing.

So when Robert Cray's fourth album and major label debut Strong Persuader arrived in 1986, a lot of blues fans did not know what to make of it. Although the first single, "Smoking Gun," seemed to track along with the "My woman's done me wrong" arc familiar to every male blues musician since Robert Johnson, the title was taken from the third single, "Right Next Door (Because of Me)," and it flipped that whole scenario on its ear. Cray sings of a man who has seduced the woman next door and listens through the walls as their relationship breaks apart because of his actions. Even when he hears her weeping in the aftermath he realizes any gesture on his part would be worthless, as shallow as the one-night-stand he persuaded her to agree to.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Cray declines offers to provide him fortune, redemption and existential joy:
You can give me an hour alone in a bank
Pay all my tickets, wipe the slate blank
You could buy me a car, fill up the tank
Tell me a boat full of lawyers just sank
Because, as the title says, "Nothin' But a Woman" will truly improve his day and life. The peppy horns and bouncy lead guitar emphasize his upbeat declaration. The same kind of style helps "I Guess I Showed Her" get its joke across -- that the man who "showed" his lady by moving out has wound up much worse off but doesn't quite seem to know that. Blues purists have supposedly downchecked Cray because of his significantly denser lyric content and willingness to mix both soul-music horns and soul-music-flavored vocals into standard blues arrangements. But his long career offers proof that Cray knows something about what he's doing, and Strong Persuader is one of the high points of a great music career.

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