The Barra MacNeils,
The Traditional Album
(Polygram, 1994)

Following on the heels of a song-heavy Closer to Paradise came the Barra MacNeils' second Polygram release, the aptly named The Traditional Album. This time, the family of four siblings from Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, did without vocals entirely, focusing instead of the traditional music of their Cape Breton upbringing. And wow, they did it well.

The album spotlights brother Kyle on violin, usually accompanied by brother Sheumas on piano. Sister Lucy makes scattered appearances playing the harp, violin, bodhran and conga, and brother Stewart sometimes adds accordion and, once, the tin whistle. A few tracks also use non-MacNeils Zan McLeod on bouzouki and guitar, and Michel Donato on string bass.

The first track, "Clumsy Lover Set," is the only track with all four MacNeils, McLeod and Donato performing together. Kyle and Lucy take the lead on this one with a pair of well-played violins. "Celtic Harp," as the name suggestions, features Lucy playing the Celtic harp for the jig "Glasgow City Police Pipers." "Tribute to Robert Stubbert" combines two reels, "Kylebrack Rambler" and "Bonnie Kate," for a rousing set led by Kyle on the violin. He keeps his fiddle handy for "The Visit Medley," a set made up of the jigs "A Visit with Margaret MacPhee," "Last Post on the Road" and "Cross Roads," and the slow "The Maids of Arrochar," which also brings Stewart in on the tin whistle.

Things pick up again when the whole family comes back for "The Brolum Set" of four reels. (I just wish Lucy's bodhran didn't fade out so quickly at the end!) "Twice a Year Fiddler" features Sheumas on a spritely piano tune with, oddly, no fiddler at all. The medley "March-Strathspeys-Reels" and the slow march "Memories of Mary Ann MacKenzie" brings Kyle back on the violin, accompanied only by Sheumas on the piano. McLeod joins the pair on bouzouki for the happy "Wedding Party Medley." Kyle and Sheumas take a break for Stewart's accordion spotlight tune, "Toonik Time." Lucy gets her violin back out for a three-piece medley of strathspeys and reels, "Twin Fiddles," and the album's final track, "Neil Gow's Lament for the Death of His Second Wife," which pairs Lucy with Sheumas on piano.

The Traditional Album is a truly good recording, nicely capturing the family's Cape Breton roots. The only disappointment is that the album is so heavily dominated by Kyle on violin and Sheumas on piano. As good as the two brothers are, I sometimes wondered where Lucy and Stewart had gone off to; their contributions to those tracks would have made for a fuller sound.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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