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NATALIE McMASTER - "In My Hands" - Greentrax CDTRAX180

This is not your average traditional Cape Breton fiddle album. It certainly features one of Cape Breton's best traditional musicians, plus a host of gifted guests, but in my view it doesn't have the soul of Natalie's previous recordings. Sure, Nat has done some off-the-wall stuff before. Her "No Boundaries" album was full of it, but most of it worked. Here it often doesn't.

On the good side, there are nine very good tracks, half of them purely traditional and half with nice touches and sensitive arrangements which one might call progressive but which lift the music to new heights. The jig "Blue Bonnets" works brilliantly as a slow air, for instance, and the hammer and tongs arrangement of Mark O'Connor's "Olympic Reel" is just right too. "Flamenco Fling" is interesting, putting a Hispanic backing to two fine contemporary reels, and the excellent traditional sets include "Welcome to the Trossachs", "Maudabawn Chapel", "New York Jig" and "Moxham Castle". Natalie's own jig "Father John MacLeod's" is a great tune too. The opening track is a total new departure - Natalie's vocals on her own ode to the fiddle - but she carries it off without drifting into sentimentality.

On the bad side, the other song is the sort of thing I hear once and want to delete: slushy, over-long and riddled with platitudes. The arrangement of "The Night We Had the Goats" and "The Fairy Dance" destroys the melody, and Sharon Shannon's playing is completely wasted on "The Farewell March" (she should have come in with a bang on the last two reels). I'm sure it was great fun in the studio, but the result is over-arranged and over-produced. I won't even mention the string quartets.

Most of this CD is very good, and some tracks are excellent. The fiddling is excellent throughout. The mixture of genres probably works like a charm in a live set, but doesn't stand up so well to repeated listening. Buy it for the good stuff (about 45 minutes' worth), but make sure you have a programmable CD player because certain tracks may lose their appeal. (They irritate the hell out of me.)

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 35 of The Living Tradition magazine.