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TALITHA MacKENZIE "Spiorad (Spirit)" Shanachie 78003

What draws Talitha MacKenzie to an electronic context for her voice work has never been clear to me. I could make several assumptions; her American roots might have placed her, unwittingly, in her time and she has grown (musically) under the spell of Terry Riley, Glass, Reich, Adams and Torke. Maybe not. Perhaps she feels for the rougher, less romantic, un-cut sound of European electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, or even Tangerine Dream! Who can tell where the influences came from; suffice it to say that Talitha MacKenzie was one of the first to carve out a corner of traditional music that is fusion-based and as such is benefiting from contemporary re-interpretation with a genuine following.

Anyway, MacKenzie's strength is that her glorious voice can be enjoyed as it relaxes comfortably in the warmth of hearth-fire acoustic instruments or as it stretches to scale the angular mountains of programmed electronic music. For me it's when she performs a cappella that the flights, trills and fancies of her Gaelic singing are best appreciated. And it's when she sings with minimal intrusion that the inner understanding of her task and her dedication to it, glow as bright as embers.

MacKenzie moves effortlessly within the parameters set by her sympathetic producer Chris Birkett who, on most tracks, supplies a context and scenic backdrop that is intriguing and appropriate. Birkett is one of the of the magpie school of musicians as he excels in begging, borrowing and stealing the sounds of diverse cultures to create his own jigsaw of sound; this means you can expect to taste a rich mix of instrumentation from pow wow toms to wombat wobbleboards and even sheep bleats and sampled Gumboot dancers! Add to these the programmed drums, fretless bass and vast arrays of cymbals, clangers, bashers and thumpers and you'd be wanting the pack of Aspirin within arm's distance. To his credit though, Birkett just about succeeds in keeping control of the weightier percussive moments on tracks such as "Spiorad" which, in a climax of drums, cymbals, fiddle and chimes, almost whites itself out in a climactic clash of unsympathetic textures.

But difficult moments on this album are rare for there is always the assured steps of Talitha MacKenzie's unfailingly attractive voice. When she takes control of the space and time a voice such as hers needs to set its own scene and mix its own colours, she can paint the most evocative sound pictures, capturing the essential poetic vision of Gaelic song. On this album for instance, she has recorded the popular song "Fear A'Bhata"; not much innovation there you might say, but no-one has done this in quite the same way MacKenzie has. It's as if she as commandeered it and made it her very own! And who could uncover for us a work such as the 16th century lament "Griogair"? This hauntingly beautiful song is accompanied by a knife-sharp clarsach which throws the words and singing into sharper focus. MacKenzie refines the song with the added line or two of cradle-song and presents it in the convincing and confident way that only a great artiste could.

The album has a further aim: with the inclusion of Serbian, Breton and Bulgarian dance-songs, Talitha MacKenzie positions herself firmly in the spotlight on the global music stage - a frontline attack that's bound to bring her the rewards she justly deserves.

John Rice

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