Loreena McKennitt,
To Drive the Cold Winter Away
(Quinlan Road, 1987)

To Drive the Cold Winter Away is Loreena McKennitt's contribution to the vast collection of music for the midwinter season. Although most of the songs on this CD are specifically about the religious aspect of the Christmas holiday, there is still a feeling of times more ancient than that.

Part of that feeling is generated by McKennitt's spare arrangements of the songs. One or two instruments -- at most three -- accompany her on most tracks, but on the traditional Scottish carol "Balulalow" she sings a cappella, as she does also on "Let All That Are to Mirth Inclined," a traditional English song. The church bell ringing in the background of the latter track cannot really be counted as an instrument, especially as it fades out during the first verse, to return only at the end of the song.

Both of these songs were recorded at Glenstal Abbey near Limerick, Ireland, and McKennitt makes full use of the marvelous acoustics. Her voice rings beautifully from the abbey's undoubtedly vaulted ceiling. Other tracks were recorded at Annaghmakerrig in County Monaghan, Ireland, and the Church of Our Lady in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. According to the liner notes, McKennitt's best childhood memories of winter music included that recorded in churches or large halls where the acoustics gave the music an additional richness. In recording for this CD, she attempted to follow in the same tradition.

As on her other CDs, McKennitt does most of the work here. Except for a guest appearance by Cedric Smith on "The King," McKennitt provides all the vocals, recording herself singing with herself when necessary. Except for a couple of tracks ("In Praise of Christmas" and "The Wexford Carol") where Shannon Purves-Smith plays viols, she also provides all the instrumentation, playing harps, accordion and tin whistle.

Most of the music included herein is traditional, but there are three original pieces. "Banquet Hall" and "The Stockford Carol" are both instrumental pieces by McKennitt; she plays harp on both. Archibald Lampman wrote the lyrics for "Snow," but McKennitt wrote the music.

The tempo of most of the tracks is unhurried, evoking a feeling of a more leisurely era, when folk celebrated the midwinter holidays without all the hurry and bustle of our own time when the word "Christmas" calls to mind images of long lines at cash registers, surly cashiers and people fighting over toys in the store aisles. If they played music like this over store speakers, perhaps shoppers would be a bit more tranquil.

To Drive the Cold Winter Away would be a wonderful addition to any CD collection, whether you like holiday music or not.

[ by Laurie Thayer ]

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