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ANAM "First Footing" JVC 9011-2

The last time I spoke to Anam was at their farewell concert in Dublin, just before the European launch of this album. The group was moving to Edinburgh, closer to home for Orkneywoman Aimee Leonard but farther away for singer-guitarist Brian O hEadhra and box-player Treasa Harkin. The title of this album reinforces the Scottish aspect of the trio, but there isn't a single Scottish track on the CD. Of twelve tracks (42 minutes), five are broadly traditional Irish, two are English, and the rest are mainly Anam's own material.

If variety is the spice of life, then this CD is very highly seasoned. Traditional Irish reels are mixed with fine compositions from ex-Anam bouzouki player Myles Farrell. Songs by Brian O hEadhra sit alongside traditional Irish ballads in Gaelic and English. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Aimee Leonard treats us to a skat version of "Lovely Joan", and there's even a spirited rendition of Cyril Tawney's "Sally Free and Easy".

Since their excellent debut album, Anam have gravitated towards folk and away from traditional material. This is definitely where the strengths of the current line-up lie, and possibly where the commercial interest is: it's not too surprising that Anam have been snapped up by a Japanese recording company with an eye to the Celtic easy-listening market. The seven songs on this CD are all fairly "Free and Easy", nothing jarring or challenging to the ear, and very tastefully arranged on the whole. (I'm not too sure about "Lovely Joan", though: it'll probably raise a few English eyebrows.)

The instrumental side of things is a bit more confusing. Aimee plays whistle and bodhran very competently, and the guest musicians include some of the finest names in Scottish and Irish music, but new recruit Treasa Harkin certainly doesn't play with the confidence and flair of a top-flight Irish box-player. I actually prefer her whistle-playing (not featured on the CD), but the big record companies seem to like the button box.

Treasa's playing does shine on the Charlie Lennon tune "Planxty Joe Burke", slightly less demanding than some of the reels on the album and presumably penned with the box in mind. Here, Treasa shows a deftness and grace which makes this track one of the highlights of the recording. The other place the instrumentals really come together is on Myles Farrell's jig "Shetlag", helped by the fiddle of Catriona MacDonald and given a nifty shoogle by bass-player Conrad Ivitsky.

On balance, this is a successful first step into the world of commercial music. I hope Anam will feel free to be a little more adventurous with their next album, and tighten up the instrumentals. If so, they should easily recapture the excitement and drive of their first album.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 21 of The Living Tradition magazine.