The Barra MacNeils,
Closer to Paradise
(Polygram, 1993)

It wouldn't take much of a push to shift the Barra MacNeils out of the Celtic roots genre entirely. The album Closer to Paradise demonstrates how closely the band walks the line between the Celtic traditions so strong in Canada these days and the folk-rock influence of numerous American bands. Personally, I hope the Barra MacNeils never make that shift; the Celtic touches are what make this album a better than average buy.

The Barra MacNeils is made up of four Nova Scotian siblings: Sheumas on keyboards and vocals, Kyle on violin, guitars, mandolin and vocals, Stewart on accordion, whistles, keyboards and vocals, and Lucy on bodhran, Celtic harp, violin and vocals.

While Closer to Paradise has strong Celtic overtones and the Barra MacNeils are often catalogued in Celtic folk sections, this can hardly be called a true Celtic album. The four MacNeils use mostly traditional instruments, and they've bolstered the band with several guest musicians including -- most notably, John Walsh on uilleann pipes -- but the music in some ways seems better compared to folk-rock bands like the Nields and Grey Eye Glances or to Irish trad-poppers The Corrs than to Celtic-Canadian folk groups like the Rankins or the Irish Descendants.

But don't let that dissuade you. This is a good album, and Lucy MacNeil in particular shines on vocals. And the band never lets you forget that, at its core, the Barra MacNeils has a Celtic background. Listen, for instance, to the uilleann pipes in the song "Darling Be Home" and the accordion in "When I'm Away from You." There's a nicely atmospheric fiddle background and some nice Celtic harping in the title track, "Closer to Paradise," and more good fiddling in "Dancing We Would Go" ... oh, hell, the traces of traditional instrumentation are everywhere.

This is primarily an album of songs, and the family boasts some fine singers. The songs are mostly contemporary, many written by the MacNeils and others written by the likes of John Sebastian, David Cross and Douglie MacLean. Styles range from the upbeat and optimistic "We Celebrate" and the countryfied "In the Wink of an Eye" to the fleeing fugitive epic "Chase the Man," the longing "Caledonia" and the kitchen party anthem "Dancing We Would Go." An excellent track is the traditional Gaelic song "Mo Nighean Dubh (My Black Haired Girl)," which brings the whole family of singers together for some nice choral work, and Lucy leads the way on the traditional Gaelic mouth music song "Aim pige Ruadh."

"Frostbite" is a very lively whistle and bodhran tune, and there's also a pair of jigs ("The Dusty Windowsill/The O'Keefe's of Dublin") boasting some fine fiddle and drum playing.

In retrospect, it's also safe to say that it wouldn't take much of a push to shift the Barra MacNeils solidly into the Celtic roots genre. That might be a step worth taking ... but at the same time, I hope the family retains its original flair.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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