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KAREN MATHESON - Urram (Respect)

KAREN MATHESON - Urram (Respect)
Vertical Records VERTCD102

For more than three decades now, Capercaillie front-person Karen has engaged listeners with songs sung in both Gaelic and English, and she can definitely be regarded as one of the song interpreters most responsible for bringing Gaelic song to be appreciated by a wider audience. Her voice is simply one of the most persuasive on the scene, with an unmistakable, meltingly smooth, pure timbre that beguiles intensely with every turn of phrase. Yet Urram, while her fourth solo record, is actually the first to consist entirely of songs sung exclusively in Gaelic.

Here, Karen presents a mixture of songs she learnt as a child and songs gathered from the archives of the School Of Scottish Studies, ranging from love songs (Cdal Cha Dean Mi) and cradle songs (Maol Ruaqnidh Ghlinneachainn, Talach Throndairnis) to praise songs (Eilean Fraoich, A Bhirlinn Bharrach), mouth music and waulking songs (Gura Mise Tha Gu Dubhach), while humour isn’t forgotten too (Ca Na Dh’Fhag Thu M’Fhichead Gini and the teasingly satirical Saoil A Mhor, Am Pos Thu, the latter featuring some especially delicious electric guitar embellishments from, I believe, James Grant). Karen also revisits the Tigrean woman’s prayer Urnaigh A Bhain Thigreach, set to music by Donald Shaw and first recorded on Capercaillie’s 1987 album Crosswinds.

Not that the sung language should ever form any real barrier for listeners anyway, for Karen’s unfailing ability to communicate meaning and mood through phrasing and expression is both outstanding and exemplary. As if all this unassuming, natural vocal expertise were not enough, though, this latest collection also possesses a distinctively original and individual musical signature due to its enterprising contemporary and world-influenced arrangements, which prominently feature the timbres of sarod (Soumik Datta) and kora (Seiko Keita), the piano of long-time collaborator Donald Shaw and beauteous string textures from premier Scottish ensemble Mr. McFall’s Chamber.

With Urram, Karen has produced a most telling and appealing musical love-letter to her Hebridean roots – one that delicately yet passionately radiates the respect of its translated title.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 111 of The Living Tradition magazine.