Nancy White,
Gaelic Envy
(Borealis, 1998)

When I first heard "Gaelic Envy" on a Borealis Records sampler, I thought: "Cool. Here's a Celtic-Canadian singer who's poking fun at this whole Irish music craze." It seemed like a fun idea, so I sent off for a copy of Gaelic Envy and Other Torch Songs, the Nancy White album it came from.

But Toronto's Nancy White -- a well-known commentator on CBC-TV shows Sunday Morning and Definitely Not the Opera and a former Toronto Sun columnist -- isn't poking fun at just her Scottish forebears on this album. She's poking fun at just about everybody. And it's great!

The album begins with the title track, on which White sings with a thick, throat-blocking Scottish accent, sort of. She bemoans her ancestors' lack of foresight for not preparing her for great success on the current Celtic wave. "My god, why didn't Granny teach me Gaelic? / I could have been a megastar today. / She used to speak it roond the hoose / But her highland lips were never loose, / She refused to translate all those nasty things she'd say." With a needle-sharp barb of wit, White observes, "In the music biz, you just can't make it / Unless you really ace that Celtic thing," before launching into a rowdy, riot-inciting chorus: "If it's no' Celtic, we don't want to hear it, / If you don't play bagpipes, shut your gob." In the process, she manages to poke a bit of fun at the likes of Ashley MacIsaac and Michael Flatley, and backing singers Bob Johnston and Tom Leighton do a great impersonation of a bagpipe drone.

"Bet He Can Tango" does the whole dance = lust thing, and the technorap "Pierced Matron" revels in the attention-getting ornamentations of an aging crone: "I'm a middle-aged mamma with a gift for the gab, / I got a diamond stud in my elbow flab." "Un Peu Cochon" sounds at first like the sort of wistful love song you'd hear sung in any quaint French cafe, where young lovers share poofy pastries and the lonely sigh into their carefully chosen wine. But as White sings the crooning tune and Leighton provides the proper French accordion, Johnston supplies English translation (I think it's accurate...) in a deadpan voice which steals the song. I mean, which sounds better? "L'amour doit etre, / Pour un francais, / Un peu cochon, / J'ai dit: 'je sais!'" or "Love must be, / for a French guy, / a little bit piggy. / I said, 'Yeah, I noticed!'" If that's not enough, his rendition of White's "la la la la" ending is priceless.

It's easy to get caught up in the humor and miss the meaning in some of these songs. "Gracias a la Vida," for instance, is a Violeta Parra song translated to English by White. As she explains in her liner notes, the song of gratitude is "an antidote to the thread of negativity that sometimes runs through my material." It's nicely performed here, with guitarists Rick Whitelaw and Marcelo Puente and percussionist Matt Zimbel giving it an authentic Spanish feel.

Don't settle back too quickly. You know those silly sing-song rhymes teenage girls often chant on the playground in their pre-cheerleader years? Well, try out the "Clapping Song for Grownups." White is joined by adult Beth Kaplan and pre-adults Barbara Johnston, Catharine Merrian-Gorman, Maddy Wilde and Suzy Wilde to provide the right playground flair to lines like "Down at the workplace / Putting up with Jerkface / Moongotcha, moongotcha / Voulez voulez vous."

"The Manly Band" is a tribute to "the darker side" of the late Stan Rogers: "And it's whip, whip your hair around / And play that fiddle so grand, / We may be wimpy folkies / But we move like a rock 'n' roll band." "Seamless Dance of the Old Folks" sounds like it's gonna be another barbed song, but it's actually quite sweet -- a tribute to people who use dance floors to dance. "You may like to watch the kids / As they bounce up and down like robots in the night, / But now and then it's good to watch / The ones who do it right."

Other songs on the album are "When You Fall in Love Like That," which is about the heartbreak and isolation finding "the one" can lead to; "He Wrote Too Many Songs About His Girlfriend," a slyly apt song about songwriters who find a bit too much inspiration in those closest to them; "Moose on the Highway," which warns of those very, um, big road hazards, and what drivers should properly do in case a road-hogging moose is spotted; "A Dream I've Had of Late," a bittersweet "feminist confession" in which the singer admits that, sometimes, it'd be nice to be taken care of by someone; and "My Life is Picking Up," a bit of a honkytonk celebration of things going well.

OK, so Gaelic Envy is pretty much exactly not what I thought it would be. Consequently, it's about 27 times better than I expected it to be. Get yourself to Canada and snag a copy.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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