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KAREN MATHESON "The Dreaming Sea" Survival CD SURCD020

The sticker proclaiming "the voice of Capercaillie" seems entirely superfluous in the light of the Sean Connery "Voice touched by God" comment and the rumours of a Capercaillie split (vehemently denied by everyone connected with the band). Given the frequency with which folk artists perform in bands/combos/solo ventures you would think that a solo album in the folk world wouldn't spark the usual band breakup nonsense - it did.

One of the problems of being in a successful band that has been together for a long time is that the band has its own dynamic and range of material it can perform. This leads to frustration amongst members who want to explore other musical avenues. Capercaillie decided to ease up on touring for a while and let everyone explore their own personal trails. "The Dreaming Sea" is the result of Karen's meander down some differing musical paths. There is Karen's trademark singing of gaelic songs, six of the thirteen are in gaelic, yet the remainder see Karen emerge as a poetic interpreter of songs with a more mainstream edge.

It is easiest to deal with the gaelic songs first. Karen has already established herself as one of the most expressive singers of gaelic songs around. Her devine voice lifts the songs and cradles the listener such that you feel the song was written for you and is being sung only to you! Given the lifetime of exposure Karen has had to the music of the gaels it's no surprise that she is one of the select few who can genuinely convey the sentiment inherent in the lyrics. The arrangements of the songs are relatively traditional and they are the closest sounding to Capercaillie. However, Karen and Donald Shaw (hubby/producer/synth player) bring in saxophones (Tommy Smith - might as well get the best), Violins, violas and cellos (curtesy of the BT Ensemble), which all add to a deliciously textured feel. As with the English songs there are loads of things going on in the background, neat little touches which slowly reveal themselves with each successive listen. Lazy bongo beats, sophisticated percussion, subtle piano and delicate saxophone are all used to reinforce Karen's effortless singing. The result is traditional songs brought bang up to date but never losing the original feeling. The album would be worth buying for these songs alone.

Fantabulous as the gaelic songs are, they were perhaps expected to be excellent. Karen regularly turns good traditional songs into great songs. The question was how would Karen fare with new songs in English. Here Karen took a chance and recorded four tracks by ex "Love and Money" man James Grant. Given Grant's relationship with the "pop" side of the industry the pairing looks decidedly odd at first glance. Odd it may be. Inspired it most definitely is. Karen has taken Grant's songs and made them hers (in much the same way as she does with traditional gaelic songs). Grant is on record as saying he didn't think Karen would be able to translate "the intensely personal" nature of the lyrics. She does - and how.

Karen takes the jaunty impulsiveness of "There's Always Sunday", the sensuality of the "The Dreaming Sea", the melancholy of "At the End of the Night" and hopefulness of "Evangeline" and makes you feel every single one of these emotions and a whole heap more. Hopefully we will hear more results of this collaboration. The other English songs are Sandy Denny's "One More Chance" and two songs written by Donald Shaw. Both "Early Morning Grey" and "Move On" prove that not only is Donald an extremely talented arranger he is also finding his feet as a song writer.

This is a brave album by Karen. It sees her spread her wings beyond the safety net of Capercaillie and venture into new territory. The result is a sparking vibrant album which is full of class musicianship, cracking arrangements and of course that voice! In short pure class.

Chris MacKenzie

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