Mary Jane Lamond is from my neck of the woods relatively speaking. The singer from Cape Breton Island made quite a name for herself more than a decade ago with a duet with then buzz fiddler Ashley MacIsaac. The song was a crossover hit in some circles but never really amounted to much in terms of sales and/or stardom. But it was her sweet Celtic style that seemed to make Atlantic Canada’s knack for great Celtic music flourish. Lamond has returned with an album that sticks with—and yet breaks with—tradition all at once. As with some of her recent work, Lamond is keeping the Gaelic language alive through her songs and lyrics, more often than not performing the tracks in the lively tongue. But this time she has also brought her backing musicians with her, forging into a slightly different pattern than with previous records.
The 11 songs on this album are quite fleshed out with Lamond’s haunting, precious vocals the focal point from start to finish. And while there could be fair comparisons made to the likes of Enya, Altan, and Clannad, Lamond isn’t too keen on dwelling on the strict traditional boundaries. “Mairi Bhan Dhail an Eas (“Fair Mary from Dalness)” begins with an acoustic guitar and Lamond carrying the rather dark and mysterious melody. Like several of these songs, Lamond heard them from an older generation, with this one song taken from the Gaelic songbook An T-Oranaiche. The strings and violin add some color to the tune, but as it goes on, Lamond and the supporting arrangement gets richer and quite lush, though not to the point of over-doing it. “Oran Luaidh” which is a “milling song”, features some lovely, quasi-galloping percussion as Lamond lets the tune grow slowly but steadily. The bass line seems equally crucial to the song’s overall success. Warm and rather soothing, it seems to complement the opener very well.
Not all of the songs work with the additional supporting or accompanying music, particularly the rather jazz-like bass that emanates from “O Nighean Donn Nan Gobhar (O Brown Haired Maiden of the Goats)”. Here Lamond mixes the distant strings with this lounge-like bass line for rather experimental but weak results. It’s not a bad vocal, but the music seems far too busy for anyone’s good, moving from jazz to an almost cinematic or soundtrack feeling. Not to worry, however, as Lamond comes back with a charming Celtic-folk mix on the dazzling “Mo Nighean Donn as Boidhche (Most Beautiful Brown-Haired Maiden)” (what is with this brown-haired maiden?). Simple and yet elegant, the song seems to soar even before Lamond utters the first lyric, returning to what worked for her in the first place. The only knock one might have against the effort is how abruptly it ends.
Mary Jane Lamond has never been one to tweak or reinvent something, and this is especially true if using “Blar Inbhir Lochaidh (The Battle of Inverlochy)” as a measuring stick. Very sparse from beginning to end, Lamond’s pipes are particularly stellar here while strings marginally nudge their way into the song, making it a memorable dirge-like effort. Add some bagpipes into the proceedings and it’s sure as heck going to give you more than a few goosebumps. Another pleaser has to be the collective harmonies pouring out of “Gur E Mo Run an Domhnallach (It Is My Love the MacDonald Man)”. As the album goes on, Lamond settles into a style that stays true to the song’s overall format, with piano and light, airy harmonies touching up the pleasant “Bal Na H-Aibhne Deas (Ball at Southwest Margaree)” that kicks into a higher gear with some fiddle, piano, and acoustic guitar. And then it morphs into a reel or jig-like structure, making the three mini-ditties meld into one rather strong good one.
The album’s homestretch contains another infectious tune entitled “Cailleach Liath Ratharsaigh (The Grey Haired Old Lady from Raasay)” that is highlighted with some Celtic or highland dancing or clogging. And Lamond is a bit player on this song, with the dancers often leading the way. But never lose sight that this album is first and foremost Mary Jane Lamond and her lovely voice. While other Celtic artists, who shall go unnamed, try to fuse the old world with the new world’s music, Lamond is content keeping the songs basically the way they were originally intended.