I have no problem admitting it: Ashley MacIssac, the drug-addled, fiscally irresponsible pariah of the fiddle world, blew my socks off with “Sleepy Maggie” a few years back. An infectious, radio-friendly blend of dance and Cape Breton fiddle music, it was “Sleepy Maggie” that first rocketed MacIssac to prominence. With all that happened to MacIssac recently, it’s hard now not to see his celebrity as something of a gimmick. A Sid Vicious personality married to the fiddle tradition of the Maritimes makes for good copy—as was made all too clear in the prescient exposé that the New Yorker recently ran on MacIssac prior to his full out meltdown (Helter Celtic indeed). And maybe it was just that—a gimmick. After all, what really made “Sleepy Maggie” such a great song was less its by now familiar world beat experimentation than the inclusion of the exotic vocals of Mary Jane Lamond, whose razor sharp Gaelic trip hop came as a real revelation.
Làn Dùil is Lamond’s second solo disc and should establish her as a major talent in Celtic and world music. It’s hard to find anything to dislike. Wisely, the emphasis is placed on Lamond’s exceptional voice, because, for most part, the music is unexceptional: a mix of folk-rock riffs and melodies with some Gaelic instrumental touches thrown in here and there—bagpipe, fiddle and so on. In terms of the overall musical tone of the album, it wouldn’t be far off to describe Lamond as a Gaelic Sarah Mclachlan: a purveyor of stirring, smart, soothing music that’s a pleasure to kick back and listen to. She’s probably a little tougher and somewhat more of an innovator than Sarah: “Mo Ghille Mor Foghain’ Each,” “A Mhorag ‘S Na Horo Gheallaidh,” and “Seallaibh Curraigh Eoghainn” are pretty cool songs, mixing her rapid stutter-step Gaelic vocals with everything from a tabla to drum beats.
Of course, I have no idea what the songs are about or even what the titles of the tracks mean, which is one of the reasons that I hesitate to give this disc a higher grade. This is miserly on my part, and what bugs me is not something that Lamond is in any position to do anything about. Lamond sees herself as a storyteller. By singing in Gaelic, not only is she spreading the stories of Cape Breton to a wider audience, she’s also preserving these stories, making sure that they aren’t lost in the onslaught of Kid Rock and Kid Koala records that have permeated the brains of Maritime youth. These are laudable aims. But what can these stories mean to listeners who aren’t conversant in Gaelic? This is one of the irresolvable antinomies of world music: as Western audiences are unlikely to understand the lyrical content of the songs (except by reading liner notes), the point of access to music not in English tends to be through the music and the emotional feeling that it conveys. This is why the most popular forms of world music tend to be the least challenging and the most (apparently) exotic. All in all, there’s something disturbingly middle of the road about much Gaelic and Celtic music, and Lamond’s is no exception. It’s beautiful, enchanting, but entirely unthreatening—the sophisticate’s version of muzak. It shouldn’t be this way, and I’m not about to suggest that we should stop listening to the exciting music being produced around the world. I’m just suspicious about what it all means.