Ceòl na h-Alba (Music of Scotland)

wallacesco-368349William Wallace is a Scots folk hero who, it is believed, was born around April of 1270. Wallace was a Knight who fought for Scottish independence from English rule, and was immortalized in the Oscar-winning film Braveheart, at least in name. Braveheart, while an entertaining drama, is about as factual on Scottish history as a tub of Cool Whip is the equivalent to Whipped Cream.

Braveheart’s soundtrack, while pleasant,  is also a modern composition, in the style of 468e4c6be98b994f6e8abf87e1f95732Scottish music but not containing a single actual Scots tune. This begs a greater question: what’s the difference between Scottish Music and Irish Music? Aren’t they the same, but with bagpipes? The question might just get you decked for saying that.

Truth is, they are quite similar, passing traditions back and forth. If you listen to folk steeped in the music, there are subtle differences in rhythms, traditional Scots music tends to be in the key of A (there’s only so much you can do on a bagpipe), while the Irish prefer drums and the key of D. Scots tunes tend to be more “snappy,” while the Irish are more “driving” (the Clancy Brothers version of “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” all but jumps out and strangles you through the speakers). But, as in anything, the styles change song to song. Each will tell you theirs is better.

brigadoonIrish music tends to be better known for several reasons. Far more people have emigrated from Ireland than Scotland, a country with the same population as Dallas-Fort Worth. The Irish tended to have more children than the Scots, so they beat them on sheer numbers as well. Many of Scotland’s great ballads get lumped in with English, but Scottish music is far from unknown. Amazing Grace, played on bagpipes though it’s an English hymn, is a funeral standard. Pipe bands are often a staple of parades. There is the Broadway play Brigadoon by Lerner and Loewe, complete with kilts and dancing. There’s a 1954 film version, but even for its day it’s rather awful. If any film needs a full Hollywood reboot, this one is 60 years overdue.

If Ancient Scottish Ballads aren’t your thing, and you think bagpipes sound like boiling rodstewartdm1306_468x431witches, there’s a much better chance you’ve enjoyed modern Scottish music. So many of the songs we hear today and think of as American or British acts are actually the work of Scots, since accents aren’t always that obvious in song. Perhaps the best known Son of Scotland would be Rod Stewart, the gravel-voiced rock singer who worked his way from rock to swing music. Annie Lennox of The Eurythmics is a Scottish lass. Sheena Easton, KT Tunstall, Mark Knopfler, now solo but formerly the lead singer of Dire Straits, David Byrne of The Talking Heads, the folk group The Corries, Average White Band, and current smooth hit-maker Paolo Nutini (yeah, that had me fooled, too – his father was Italian, his mother Scotch, and he was born in Scotland). Add in Ian Anderson (lead singer for Jethro Tull), Lulu (you might remember her for the theme from the Bond film “Man With the Golden Gun”), Big Country (a one-hit wonder in America), Gerry Rafferty, Simple Minds, and the Celtic folk group Capercaillie.

200px-wallace_tartan_vestiarium_scoticumThat’s a lot of tartan pride!

So whether you like traditional Celtic folk, the plaintive reels of a good piper, or feel like rocking out to Maggie May, sit back and raise a pint to old William Wallace, a patriot who died keeping his country and culture from being lumped with Ireland and England.

Songs of Anarchy, Volume 1 and 2

Jacket.aspxRarely do I leave a CD in my player for more than a month straight. It’s been two months now, and aside for taking two weeks off at the holidays, it’s still in there, and I listen to it every day. Songs of Anarchy is the soundtrack to the FX television show Sons of Anarchy.
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You do not need to be a devotee or even know of the television show to adore the soundtrack to the series. Sons of Anarchy is an ultra-violent soap opera following a fictional biker gang in California. You know the characters are despicable, but they are written so well and to such depth that you cannot help but feel sympathy for them – while you call them names for being that stubborn. All that violence is offset by a soundtrack that is both entertaining and breathtakingly poignant. There is no set tone – the albums contain a mix of popular, rock, country, folk, alternative – whatever fits the moment. Many of these are covers of old greats by the series’ incredible house band, The Forest Rangers – a driving version of Gimmee Shelter (in which you can understand the lyrics), an achingly beautiful instrumental version of Fortunate Son, a gorgeous tweaking of House of the Rising Son with lyrics to fit the show. It was the deep blues rhythms of John the Revelator that first caught my attention watching the series (who else works an entire song into a drama series every week, like a prize in a Cracker Jack box?), and it made purchasing the album inevitable. The song wouldn’t leave my head, and I needed to hear it again.
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Katey Sagal, lead actress in the show as Gemma Teller, is also a singer in her own right with albums to her name. Her version of Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire puts the original to shame, and Strange Fruit will give you the shivers.
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Volume 2 of Songs of Anarchy is a must if you listen to the first. There is just too much good vol 2.aspxmusic. Coal War, the season opener to year four, is a foot stomping ballad that crosses the line between country and pop much the way The Eagles did. The Lost Boy is a tragic ballad on its own, but if you know the series, it is played out in its entirety as one of the lead characters makes his sacrifice for his best friend, and it will bring you to tears. No Milk Today was originally a fluffy pop piece done by Herman’s Hermit’s in 1966; slowed down, it takes on a haunting new meaning when you consider it accompanies the kidnapping of a nine-month-old baby by the IRA.
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Kurt Sutter, the creator/producer/writer of the show (he also stars in it as Otto, and he’s married to Katey Sagal), wanted music to be an integral part of the show, setting tones, carrying themes, underscoring the action. What he managed is beyond brilliance, touching the stories and the viewers/listeners alike and playing with their emotions. Because of the varied styles of music, you might not like every track on the albums (the version of Slip Kid is too metal for me), but these albums are certain to please almost everyone.

 

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Susan Reviews: The Last Ship

Sting (born Gordon Sumner) is one of those hold-overs from the last golden age of music.  His career took off as lead singer for the band The Police, whose pop singles such as “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” scored gold even when re-released. Since the break-up of The Police in 1986, Sting has had his share of solo chart-topping success with power albums such as Dream of the Blue Turtles, but I’m not sure his latest endeavor, The Last Ship, will do as well.

Don’t get me wrong – the album is lovely and showcases Sting’s wide range of talents in a heavy northern accent we didn’t hear during his Police years.  The songs – his first after a ten-year writing hiatus while he dealt with the deaths of his parents – are soft, almost melancholy, exploring the closing of the shipyards in the town he’d grown up in.  It’s a long, long way from “Roxanne” or “King of Pain.” Instead, we’re left with an album that vacillates between traditional-sounding folk tunes (the haunting title track, “The Last Ship,” which never seems to want to leave your head) and soft Sunday-brunch jazz (“August wind”).  If there’s a bad side to the album, it’s that it lacks the wider scope of variety we’ve come to expect from Sting as he has explored various types of music, from pop to rock to jazz to symphony.

If you love soft music, or ballads, or folk music, you’ll enjoy this album, The tunes are haunting, the lyrics thoughtful, with a presence so strong you feel as if you’re walking the streets through an old British-Isles sea town.  If you’re looking for chart-climbing pop singles, go back to Fields of Gold.