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DÀIMH Diversions

Greentrax CDTRAX343

Dàimh is a West Highland outfit with an eclectic front line of Canadian pipes, Californian fiddle and Irish banjo. Album number 4 sees vocals fully integrated into the Dàimh grùmh, with six Gaelic songs from Callum Alex MacMillan. The sleeve notes are annotated with symbols for drink, love, war, murder, emigration and death: using icons to explain the themes of each song is a great idea. It also supports my theory that Gaelic song is really just another instrument: the words are irrelevant for most listeners, they simply want to know if the song is sad or happy, plus maybe the body count. Indeed the lyrics of many Gaelic songs don't actually make much sense anyway, puirt a beul particularly. So maybe Dàimh are still an instrumental outfit at heart. The songs on Diversions range from Jacobite rants to jaunty chorus songs, penned by highland bards from Lewis to Paisley. Callum Alex sings engagingly, calling to mind a young kilted Jim Malcolm. Sporan Dhomhnaill is the most cheerful vocal number here, followed by a couple of dark brooding ballads and the lighter romantic tale of An Caol Loch Eilt. This particular story must ring true throughout the highlands: a young couple separated by a narrow stretch of water, close enough to fall in love but unable to touch, lacking the ability to swim, the money for a boat, or the wit to simply walk round.

Every second track here is a strong instrumental medley. Starting with Ida's Jigs, we have the first of several compositions from fiddler Gabe McVarish whose playing does exactly what it says on the tin: West Highland style, piping gracenotes with a Gaelic lilt, and just enough Californian sunshine to keep the music warm and bright. Angus MacKenzie's pipes pile in for Marianne's Reel, and there's a cracking double pipes arrangement on Taighean Geala: both border pipes and highland pipes feature on this recording, doing full justice to tunes by Gordon Duncan, Dr Angus MacDonald and Roddy Campbell amongst others.

Dàimh haven't lost their talent for turning fiddle tunes into pipe tunes too, with excellent settings of the traditional Shetland reel Scalloway Lasses and Paul Cranford's Union Street Session. Angus MacKenzie's Cape Breton background combines stylish kitchen piping with a feel for the Gaelic in tunes and songs. The banjo of Irishman Colm O'Rua is hard to spot on this album, a disappointment for me. On the plus side, the lads are joined by two of the formidable Vallely brothers for the modern Irish reels Malfunction Junction and Stone of Destiny, once again cunningly set for the pipes. This pair of instant classics follow the only slow air on Diversions: Gaelic song seems to have taken the place of the slower tunes, giving new scope for the full and complex harmonies which were lavished on airs such as Sealg a's Sùgradh on Dàimh's previous release.

I'm always skeptical when an instrumental band adds a singer: how will this change the character of the music, will there be unity or duality, will the instrumental strengths be preserved? Callum Alex MacMillan joined Dàimh for their third album, and gets the lion's share of the limelight here. In my worst case scenario, their next release will be by Callum Alex and the Divers, with Callum front and centre on the cover, and maybe three instrumental tracks on the CD. Best case, Callum Alex gets between a quarter and a sixth of the solos next time, with equal prominence for pipes, fiddle, banjo and other instruments. Time will tell, but Diversions is not a bad compromise for now. The song arrangements are rich and rewarding instrumentally, the whole ethos of the album is still firmly based on Gaelic culture from both sides of the Atlantic, and the tunes will frighten sheep for miles around.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 85 of The Living Tradition magazine.