Sunday, January 26, 2014

Celtic Corner: Fiona Hunter

Album cover; photography by Thomas Gavin
Breaking away from Malinky for a her first solo album, Fiona Hunter has given us an album that will stand the test of time.  Considering it's traditional folk, I think it would anyway, but it excels even at that.  Never has a solo debut sounded so brilliant.  With the help of the musical genius producer Mike Vass, Fiona Hunter’s self-titled release for March 2014 released a much needed anti-oxidant diet in the musical world.  Its dark innocence perfectly captures the Scottish tradition with a strong, crisp voice that soars over the Highlands and through the public houses.  Vass’ creative production complements Hunter’s vocals flawlessly.

The opening track “Braes o’ Gleniffer” sets the tone of the album with a steady, medium pace, certainly faster than much of the album with a steady, medium pace, certainly faster than the majority of the album.  The nostalgic voice—both happy and longing—and catchiness complement the song perfectly.  Its lyrics both heartfelt and full of imagery, perfect for a literary study in a school classroom, as the narrator combines love of both her Scottish home and her lover.  However, she seems to be more in love with Scotland.  It’s a perfect naturalist poet era piece.  English teachers, I’m looking at you really, really hard right now.

The Robert Burns poem “The Weary Pund O’ Tow” is perfectly executed by Hunter, Vass, Burton, and Watson.  She gives it the proper spunk required of a song about a man who feels awful sore that he got a wife who refuses to do housework and spinning, like the neighbor’s wife.  Rather than buying a slave, he got a strong-willed woman who likes to drink and have fun.

Just when things started off fun, Hunter gets to what she does best: murder ballads.  “The Cruel Mother” is a classic tune of a mother who gives birth in the woods and buries her children on the spot as they wail.  She later confronts what she’s done when she sees children playing at a ball and is haunted by her children, now in heaven.  Here, Vass’ fiddle gives a bone-chilling discord along with Hunter’s pleasant voice to create a dissonance that is both pleasing and reckoning.  It’s perfect for when her children’s ghosts condemn her to hell.

Photography by Thomas Gavin
So we went a little dark; let’s get a little less dark with a mashup of Ewan McVicar’s “Shift and Spin” and Mike Vass’ The Shoemaker”!  Notice I said a little less dark?  It’s still dark but not treacherous and full of death.  Rather, “Shift and Spin” tells of the woes of women in the spinning mill.  As the women go through their daily routine, they dream of a love that will take them from this life of low wages and ill treatment.  Unfortunately, for most, a man will never come courting them, and typically a woman of the time who even enters the factory life will not get out of it.

Just when you thought you had a break from murder ballads, “Young Emsley” graces us.  When I first heard Hunter sing this on tour with Malinky, I cried from its sheer beauty.  Here, though, Hunter and Vass arranged it differently.  Before Hunter’s debut album, she had played it with the chilling cello and less guitar plucking at a lower key.  It had been a darker, fuller tune, but they smartly apply that “MacCrimmon’s Lament”, so the songs do not sound too similar.  Rather, Hunter and Vass give us a song that could easily be done by Alison Krauss + Union Station.  The pure, airy vocals combined with the elegant music are reminiscent of the Appalachian music, while having a oceanic element to it, echoing the tide.

We go back to a happy tune with a mashup of the traditional tune of loves reunited after seven years apart.  “The Bleacher Lass o’ Kelvinhaugh” and Mike Vass’ original “Fiona Hunter’s” are a perfect combination of happy.  The bleaching fields of Kelvinhaugh were not a fun time, as cotton had to be bleached before the late 1700s in vats of urine and left in the sun to bleach.  Keep in mind, this is what the Classical Romans and Greeks did as well. 

Photography by Roddy Mackenzie
“Ye Heilan Chiels” makes me cry every time.  Every time.  Hunter had learned this tune from one of her legendary mentors Andy Hunter.  Her other mentor Lizzie Higgins also sang it.  The tune follows the harrowing experience of the Scottish soldiers through time, from the Flodden Fields to Vietnam.  You can feel the tension, the sadness, the anger, and the longing in the song.  Its subtle political bite is an added bonus.  Hunter delivers the vocals and cello with sharpness and fullness, her voice crawling over the battle fields.

Andy Hunter taught another tune on the album to Fiona Hunter: “The Laird O’ Drum”.  It tells the tale of Laird Alexander Irvine of Drum, who married Margaret Coutts, a lower class girl, much to his brother’s dismay.  Her retort on their wedding day was priceless: None could tell the difference between his dust from hers when they’re in their graves.

Hunter’s haunting vocals begin “MacCrimmon’s Lament” acapella, providing a lonely feeling, yet evoking a quiet strength concerning the narrator’s life resignation and deadly fate.  When the guitar’s intricacies and the shruti box’s eerie drone, the voice elevates in a chill-inducing crescendo of despair, loneliness, and defeat.  The final chorus adds Vass softly speaking the lyrics just under Hunter’s, creating a truly haunting vibe of an apparition already doomed.  This was the way the poem was meant to be.  No one should bother singing it after this.  When someone makes a movie of this story, I will petition this version be included.

Hunter ends on a light note with a fun song “Jock Hawk’s Adventures in Glasgow”, recounting the tale of Jock Hawk going to Glasgow with a lass to have some ale at the tavern, to soon be joined by some rowdy sailors in a night of drinking and fun.  The sailors later take his belongings and his date and leave him with the bill.  Hunter is joined here by a merry band of singers to offer a mock crew of sailors for a bit of jolly good times.  If this leaves you wanting more, it should.  Just go ahead and replay the CD.  You won’t tire of it.  I had it for three straight months in my car, listening to it every day.

Though the album has not been released, you can buy and receive it now and enjoy every second of it, except for those dreadful two-second pauses between songs.

Check out more from Fiona Hunter at the following:

And her band Malinky at the following:

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