MacAlias,
Highwired
(Greentrax, 2000)

When writing a review, I discount the promotional materials included with the CD; they are, obviously, designed to promote the product, not provide an objective view. With MacAlias and Highwired, I'm happy to say the product largely lives up to the hype.

This is an album of folk music (broadly drawn definition here, folks, with the gamut running from traditional tunes traditionally rendered to a more country-flavored contemporary idiom) by Karine Polwart (of the group Malinky) and Gill Bowman. As MacAlias, they treat the listener to woven harmonies that will remind one immediately of the Indigo Girls, or perhaps of the work of Prior and Tabor or the Roches. They are additionally formidable guitarists, and this potent mix of voices and instruments serves the best of the material here very well indeed.

The disc opens with "All the Way Back Home," a tight original piece which features a "lapslide" (the sound will be familiar to fans of the pedal steel guitar or dobro) and a country (albeit lowland Scots country) feel. The second tune, "Wild West Romance," unfolds as a medium tempo waltz in which the distance between a Cajun and traditional Scots' accordion proves to be very short. There are several Robert Burns odes given musical treatment on the disc; the first of these is "Golden Locks of Anna," a marvelously lean reading which hangs on the vocals and guitars, and is a delight to hear.

Further on in the disc is the elliptic lyric of Bowman's "I Don't Think She Will Stay," shot through with irony and rendered with care. "Violet and Rose" is a lushly charted waltz, and it's followed by "Gin I Were a Blackbird" as brightly rendered a Scots' dark love allegory as I can recall having heard, with some nice work on harpsichord and mandolin on display. One of the best a cappella moments on the disc is "Polwart on the Green," and there's a great story-song in "John C. Clarke," a contemporary tale of wooing (sort of) and winning. The disc closes with "Fine Floo'ers in the Valley/Bonnie at Morn," a fine casting of traditional standards marred only by an obtrusive drum in the mix (snare seemed out of place).

All in all, this is a fine bit of aural delight, in which strong writing is underwritten by strong performance and (mostly) intelligent choices of material and arrangement. My personal preferences for this sort of music run to leaner production and sparer charts, and so it makes sense that my favorites here are those which lean in that direction, but I suspect that MacAlias has much to offer any fan of folk, and especially those who are driven to seek out the fusion of many folk traditions into a sweetly harmonious whole. Highwired offers just such a musical exploration, and you don't even have to leave the comfort of your personal listening space.

[ by Gilbert Head ]
Rambles: 8 July 2001



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