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THE BARRA MacNEILS "The Traditional Album" Iona IRCD047

Iona Records have recently released something like twelve CDs from Canada, including two from the Barra MacNeils who are the stars of the Iona catalogue. They hail from Sydney Mines, Cape Breton, where they have been immersed in the music and tradition from an early age. Lucy plays celtic harp, violin, bodhran, and conga; Stewart plays penny whistle and accordion; Kyle in on violin and mandolin; and Sheumas on piano, and on this album they have recorded a set of tunes - jigs, reels, strathspeys, airs and even a couple of marches.

The "Clumsy Lover Set", which is first up, is a cracker, with pace and verve, and the two fiddles of Kyle and Lucy working well together on the jim "Calliope House", which is followed by three reels. A good opening which shows promise for what is to come. And that promise is fulfilled on the next track with a light, sure touch on the jig "Celtic Harp" played by Lucy, and by the set of reels that follows in "Tribute to Robert Stubbert". The musicianship is first class, and that very high standard is held throughout the recording, with some really excellent violin from Kyle on the traditional air "The Maids of Arrochar", and fine, sensitive playing from Lucy, also on violin, on another air, "Neil Gow's Lament". Stewart MacNeil's composition "Toonik Tyme" has some good, innovative accordion playing, although the tune and style does put me in mind of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, but that's OK by me. There are some more grand reels in "The Brolum Set"; "Twice A Year Fiddler" has some nice keyboard from Sheumas; and there is a set of interesting strathspeys. But ... I found myself losing interest. It's all extremely proficient, very precise, sharp, and clean, and it seems unfair to fault the CD for that, but it's just a bit overdone, sanitised almost to the point of sterility, and just a bit too, well, perfect. I just found myself wishing that they would loosen-up a bit - I'll bet a live set from the MacNeils is really something else!

Despite the album's title, only about two-thirds are actually credited as traditional tunes, but the ones which aren't originate in Cape Breton, where Scottish traditional music has been the staple diet for years and years, and has nurtured a very distinctive, familiar style. It is, however, on the traditional material that they are really at their best - although violin from Kyle is an absolute treat throughout the CD whatever the source of the music!

Mel Howley

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This album was reviewed in Issue 22 of The Living Tradition magazine.