Moving Cloud, "Welcome: Who Are You?"; Shooglenifty, Troots; Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Welcome Here Again

Bands that play traditional Celtic music generally operate under a basic formula, mimicking what goes on in typical pub sessions. The melodies are played on fiddle, plus one or two additional lead instruments like a flute or an accordion, while the aggressive strumming of a guitar and/or a bouzouki provides the chordal accompaniment. This approach has generally worked well over the past thirty-five years or so. Still, bands or duos interested in recording albums or going on tour know that they have to distinguish themselves in order to get noticed. Sometimes this can mean adding instruments on, whether it's something simple like natural percussion from instruments like the bodhrán, or something more complex like electronics or rock amplification. It can also mean stripping things down, focusing on the clarity of the melody instead of maximizing the energy. I've had the opportunity to listen to new albums from several Celtic acts over the past few weeks, with each act bringing something different to the table.

The first album I listened to is called "Welcome: Who Are You?", from a band called Moving Cloud. Despite the unmistakably Irish flavor of their music, Moving Cloud actually hail from the unlikely country of Denmark. (Some of you might recall a Donegal-based band with the same name that released two albums on Green Linnet in the nineties. The members of the two bands were evidently so fond of the same particular reel that they both named themselves after it. While I imagine they'd appeal to the same audience, they are two different bands, from different places, with different personnel.) The primary distinguishing element of Moving Cloud's sound is the heavy reliance on percussion. Svend Kjeldsen has been banging on the bodhrán and other assorted instruments for the band since their inception, and is the only person to be part of every Moving Cloud lineup to date. He provides a steady backbeat and groove to most of the pieces on the album. He is assisted on a couple of tracks by step dancer Mette Løvschal, a relative newcomer to the group. They collaborate on a unique recitation called "Anahorish... My Place of Clear Water," the most intriguing track on the album. Filling out the band's sound are long-time members John Pilkington (vocals, guitar, bouzouki) and Klavs Vester (flutes and whistles), along with the band's newest member, fiddler Christopher Davis Maack.

Outside of "Anahorish," "Welcome: Who Are You?" contains the usual series of jigs, reels, and slow airs, with Pilkington throwing in a few songs for good measure. Moving Cloud deserve to get noticed in the crowd, though, partly because Kjeldsen makes the faster pieces more rhythmic, but also because the band as a whole plays with a healthy amount of energy and spirit. Now, I could understand it if somebody with a thousand or two Celtic albums might be more demanding than I am, but I actually hadn't listened to a whole lot of new Irish-style CD's in a while, and I found "Welcome: Who Are You?" to be a breath of fresh air.

Moving on to Scotland, I gave a few listens to the new album Troots by Shooglenifty. Shooglenifty have been playing together for over a decade, and have built their reputation by combining jigs and reels with rock instrumentation and electronics. They draw a lot of comparisons to Irish modern folk acts like Kíla and the Afro-Celt Sound System, but on this album, at least, I don't feel that they live up to those comparisons. They aren't nearly as creative or interesting with their arrangements, and without any significant vocals the album suffers from a lack of variety. They also lean a little too heavily on the drums and amps, to the point where not only do the actual tunes become almost secondary, but the individual performances and any sense of band chemistry get lost in the shuffle as well. They may play as well as Moving Cloud, for example, but they make it hard for the listener to notice sometimes.

A couple of years ago I was attending a concert by Liz Carroll and John Doyle with the woman I've since married, and I commented to her before the show that Carroll and Doyle were the best Irish fiddle/guitar duo I had seen perform. At which point, the person sitting next to us interjected, "In that case, you haven't seen Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill." Indeed I haven't, although after giving Hayes and Cahill a closer listen on some of their older recordings and more particularly on their new release Welcome Here Again, I've come to realize that comparing the two acts is actually very hard. The quality of playing is nearly equal (and equally brilliant), yet their approaches to Irish fiddle music couldn't be any more different. Where Carroll and Doyle rear back and fire, Hayes and Cahill strip everything down. They play with a disarming deliberateness of pace which, for listeners accustomed to the usual rowdiness of an Irish session, almost doesn't register at first listen. In other words, you'd better be prepared to give their music time to grow on you.

Happily, after several listens to Welcome Here Again I really started to get what Hayes and Cahill were doing. Hayes' fiddling emphasizes the clarity and beauty of the melody above everything else. No tunes are played at breakneck speed, with abrupt transitions into a different tune or dramatic changes in key. Intensity is built up slowly, if it is built up at all. What you do get, for the most part, is one lovingly played tune at a time. Cahill's accompaniment is correspondingly sparse, embracing the empty spaces and quiet moments. You won't hear all six strings vigorously strummed at once at any point on this recording. Cahill also frequently mimics a harp with his playing. While the approach is generally effective, it also makes me wonder what Hayes could do with the right harpist backing him up.

Welcome Here Again is calmly reflective from start to finish. I could see some people complaining that it is too calm, but I think less restless listeners will find that the album works beautifully as a whole.

Overall grades:
Moving Cloud B
Shooglenifty C
Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill A-

reviewed by Scott

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2008 The Green Man Review

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