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Quinlan Road, 1994
The suspiciously Irish-sounding Canadian Loreena McKennitt was a kind of natural successor to Clannad, who seemed to fade away in the 1990s. Not least because her voice has a similar strength and quality to Maire Brennan's, but also the way her music naturally blends Celtic roots with contemporary adult pop and new-age, finished off with a high-gloss production. McKennitt's individual take on the style is the way she melts in other world influences, and composes long, almost symphonic songs with a great control of timing. It might be too slick or even sickly for those allergic to this kind of fusion. But she manages to transcend blandness and cliche, it's executed with enough taste to convert a few cynics.
The stand-out tune, in the sense of both catchiness and quality, is "The Bonny Swans". It's a folk song so repetitive that by rights it should be as irritating as hell, but the love that McKennitt and the band put into performing it makes it attractive and compelling. Each variation is given a subtly different slant. It's all peppered liberally with interesting percussion, and mingled with some lovely interplay between a big-haired solo guitar and a romantic violin.
The album's cinematic ambitions are confirmed by the start of the first song "The Mystic's Dream". Her wordless vocalising and tootling exotic pipe are soon joined by a chanting male chorus, over a spacious keyboard hum. Stuff for high-budget historical movies. Elsewhere we're treated to a lot more wide-screen world scene-setting. The lilting tune of "Marrakesh Night Market" is caressed with Arabic strings. Similarly "Santiago" whisks us to Latin America where McKennitt seems to serenade the locals with a Celtic folk tune, crowned with a whirling violin solo. She understands well that world music means good percussion, which is always appropriate and colourful.
The album's heavy on the ballads, which put her clear and controlled soprano centre-stage. It'll certainly be ear candy to Clannad and Enya fans. Best of these is "The Dark Night of the Soul", which is not as goth as the title suggests. It's sentimental as anything, but not oversickly, with ultra-expressive vocals, well-placed harmonies, and most importantly a strong tune. "Cé Hé Mise Le Ulaingt? / The Two Trees" is another highly repetitive folk song, but it's given enough momentum by its gloopily romantic piano and violin arrangement, that you don't know where all of the nine minutes went. Although two minutes at the start are reserved for some good old Irish pipes, which no Celtic-rooted album would be complete without.
It's a sticky pudding of many sweet ingredients, made with delicacy and care, but best enjoyed in small amounts.
June 6, 2006