The Rankin Family,
North Country
(EMI Music Canada, 1993)

It was Cookie Rankin's voice on "Drunken Piper," an outstanding track on Natalie MacMaster's fine album, No Boundaries, which convinced me to seek out the Rankin Family. North Country contains a lot of what I was looking for, including three songs with lead vocals by Cookie (the countryish "Borders and Time," the powerful Gaelic boat song "Leis an Lurgainn" and the wistful "Turn That Boat Around") and several more with Cookie backing up or sharing vocal duties with sisters Heather and Raylene, and brother Jimmy. Her voice is as strong as I expected it to be, and the whole Rankin clan seems gifted with silver throats.

Jimmy Rankin is the most prolific of the bunch, having written eight of the album's thirteen tracks. Unfortunately, he leans too far from his Nova Scotian roots for my taste, embracing instead the American country tradition in songs like "Saved in the Arms," "Borders and Time" and "Lisa Brown."

OK, for country music it's not bad. But I just can't get too excited about it.

But Jimmy has also written some beautiful, fun songs. "North Country," sung by Heather, is an exuberant homage to their homeland, and "Tramp Miner," sung by Jimmy, is a free-spirited working class tune. "Turn the Boat Around" is a beautiful song about Nova Scotia's coastal fisherfolk. The "Mull River Shuffle," which Jimmy introduces and sings, is an enthusiastic tune about the hard-drinking music sessions so popular in Celtic-rooted countries. Helping to create the mood are fiddlers Howie MacDonald and John Morris Rankin (with "Golden Rod Jig," "Trip to Toronto" and "Tipperty's Jeen"), and background singers Cookie, Heather and Raylene. The sisters also add a lively stepdancing rhythm to the mix.

Better still is "Johnny Tulloch," again written and sung by Jimmy. This foot-stompin' good tune about a rural dance has simple lyrics -- largely consisting of the lyrical names of the people attending -- but I defy anyone to listen without tapping SOME part of their bodies in time to the beat. Hell, I expect everyone to flip back and hear it again, just like I did the first time I heard it while driving with Sara, my lovely Canadian connection, from Toronto to the Butterfly Conservatory near Niagara. Like "Mull River," the sisters are credited for backing vocals, as well as tireless hands and feet.

The traditional Gaelic love song, "Dich U Agus H-Iuraibh Eile," features Raylene's sweet-voiced vocals and some fine background fiddling by MacDonald. Another Gaelic song, "Ho Ro Mo Nighean Donn Bhoideach" ("Ho Ro My Nut Brown Maid") is lovingly sung by all three sisters. Perhaps their best harmonies are found in "Rise Again," an anthem to the future through the next generation. The song is led by Raylene, but Cookie and Heather join her for each gorgeous chorus.

Underutilized, in my opinion, is the only nonsinger of the Rankin bunch, fiddler John. Although his fiddle is featured in the background in a few tunes (and he plays piano in several more), John gets the spotlight only once, in the energetic "Christy Campbell Medley."

The Rankin Family is a band I could really love ... but, unfortunately, their country tendencies knock them down from their rightful place near the top of the heap. This is definitely a group I'll be hearing a lot of, but mostly on tapes where I can pick and choose the tunes.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



Buy North Country from Amazon.com.
(The U.S. release of this album contains tracks from the Canadian North Country and Fare Thee Well Love.)