various artists,
Celtic Crossroads
(Putumayo, 2005)

Put it this way: have you ever heard a Putumayo compilation that was not, at the very least, fun to listen to?

Celtic Crossroads is no exception to the line of excellent Putumayo collections. It is diverse without being unlistenably eclectic, well arranged, thoroughly annotated and full of genuinely good music. Contemporary Celtic music compilations so often turn out to be soapy, synthesized new age that it is refreshing to find that this one is nothing of the sort. Celtic Crossroads is a smoothly upbeat, electronic-tinged blend of modern Celtic music that serves as an inviting gateway to the genre, as well as being a fine recording in its own right.

In a lot of ways, Celtic Crossroads can be seen as a harmonious blend of contrasting elements: instrumentals and vocals, old melodies and new interpretations, well-known artists as well as rising ones. The instrumentals make for fun listening: Matthew McGoldrick's nimble Irish flute plays against a laidback ambience on "Sully's No. 37/Lucy's Reel," and Alan Stivell's harp makes an even more surprising pairing with a subtle electronic beat on "E Kreiz Hog Endro." The Peatbog Faeries produce something altogether more danceable in their funky original piece, "Captain Coull's Parrot."

But in the end, it's really the vocals that stand out. Sinead O'Connor sounds much as she always does on "Her Mantle So Green," which may or may not be a good thing, depending on whether you like her distinctive voice or not. I prefer Karen Matheson of Capercaillie; she has a clear, supple voice that is well showcased by the light instrumentation of "Hoireann O." My favorite track on Celtic Crossroads, however, is Mick McAuley's haunting version of "The House Carpenter." It's a melancholy old ballad about adultery and doom that has been sung by everyone from Natalie Merchant to Joan Baez, but this spare, atmospheric rendition is just about perfect. McAuley's voice is striking and his diction is wonderfully clear: when he sings, "What are those hills yonder, my love / They look as black as night," shivers run down my spine.

Just one track potentially merits the skip button: Keltik Electrik's "Wild Mountain Thyme" is best described as country with a lumpy electronic beat, in the midst of which the charm of the old Scottish tune disappears entirely. One out of 11 isn't a bad ratio at all, however, and in general, Celtic Crossroads is a great collection of contemporary Celtic music that blends talented musicianship with crisp, modern sounds. Traditionalists will probably hate it; everyone else will be delighted.

by Jennifer Mo
21 October 2006

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