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CATHERINE-ANN MACPHEE "Suil Air Ais (Looking Back)" Greentrax CDTRAX258

Catherine-Ann MacPhee looks back over her childhood years on the Isle of Barra to bring us a graceful and truly enjoyable collection of some of her favourite songs. The result is an extremely elegant album, with exemplary production by Tony McManus. Most of the songs are traditional; all are beautiful, and need little adornment. The vocals were recorded in Canada, where MacPhee now lives, and the instrumentals were added in Scotland. MacPhee's unmistakable voice is lovely throughout, and the accompanying musicianship shows immense sensitivity. The resulting recording is a balm to your senses, evoking emotion and reflection as you listen. The beauty of the songs seems to wash over you like the gentlest wave. Images like this come easily; even the album cover itself is a visual delight - MacPhee's daughter Mairead MacDonald painted the simple yet evocative portrait of a Barra seascape. The booklet, besides featuring the Gaelic lyrics with English translation, also includes captivating photographs of the island.

The album is distinguished by several outstanding features. Firstly, the sheer timeless beauty of the Gaelic songs, performed by an acknowledged master of the genre. Laments and love songs mingle with puirt a beul, pibroch, and even a ceilidh song. One of my favourites has to be the beautiful hymn, 'O Iosa Bi'n Comhnaidh', with its exquisite cello accompaniment. Secondly, the quality of the musicianship. With performers like Tony McManus (guitar), Wendy Stewart (clarsach), Neil Martin (cello), Iain MacDonald (flute/small pipes), Ewen Vernal (bass), and Mairi MacInnes (backing vocals), you cannot fail to create beautiful music. Thirdly, the superb production. McManus's judgement is very sound - the gentle, elegant touch of his production, and the resulting mix by McManus and Tony Haigh ensures that the beauty of the Gaelic song radiates throughout this recording.

There is so much for a lover of Gaelic song to enjoy here, for MacPhee's vocals are astonishingly pure throughout. She's accompanied by the elegance of the clarsach on the late Murdo MacFarlane's 'Mal Na Mara'; Mairi MacInnes' backing vocals combine exquisitely with MacPhee's on 'Sguaban Arbhair'; other songs include haunting flutes, the gentlest Scottish small pipes, very sensitive bass and cello playing, and, without exception, McManus' very finely crafted guitar accompaniment.

I encountered some wonderful surprises as I listened to this album, even amongst the songs that I already knew and loved ('Calum Beag', 'Am Buachaille Ban'). This collection will surely delight lovers of Gaelic song everywhere.

Debbie Koritsas

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This album was reviewed in Issue 57 of The Living Tradition magazine.