English, like music, is international, which is why a combination of the two means artists are able to have global careers that extend beyond lands where it is the first language. However, while other countries embrace recordings made in both their native tongue and those in English, on these isles it rarely seems to work in reverse. Finding a single or an album that isn’t sung primarily, if not exclusively, in English is a bit like stumbling on a cache of hens’ teeth.
Leaving the early days of Eurovision aside, we have been known to make exceptions for the occasional French, Italian or Spanish artist who has obstinately refused to translate the foreign lyrics to their catchy tune into something your average Sun reader can sing down the pub, but even rarer is to find a breakout/crossover success for homegrown bilingual talent who opt to record in Welsh or Gaelic.
Indeed, I can only think of three occasions in which a recording in Gaelic has troubled the UK charts, Clannad’s Theme From Harry’s Game, Capercaillie’s Coisich A Ruin and Runrig’s An Ubhal as Àirde. Although Mànran’s Latha Math came close to being the first Gaelic song for the 21st Century in the top 40.
Of those, only Runrig were what you might call folk rock, and Gaelic recordings these days tend to be province of traditional-minded artists.
However, inspired by returning to his native Lewis and collaborating with veteran Gaelic musician Calum Martin, Willie Campbell, former frontman of Glasgow indie underachievers Astrid and occasional member of The Reindeer Section, aims to not only breathe new life into the somewhat limited Gaelic folk-rock scene but expand its horizons and audience on his new album Dalma.
Taking as first principle that, if they can’t sing the words (and the booklet offers no translation), the audience should at least feel the urge to move their limbs, Campbell ensures his melodies register strongly. Thus, Dalma ranges rousingly from the ringing Byrdsian guitar chords of Fir Chli and the chiming U2 echoes of the falsetto sung Gruund Na Mara to the anthemic arena punch of Rud As Fhearr and, by way of ringing the changes, Faisg air mo Dhia, a faithfully old time country Gaelic version of Nearer My God To Thee featuring minor Americana legend Scott Neubert on mandolin.
Having banged on about singing in Gaelic, Campbell does slip into English for the final chorus here, as well as alternating between the two languages for the equally spiritually-themed slow handclap rhythm M’Anam Trom. Hedging his bets slightly, he also reprises two of the tracks completely in English, the McGuinn-jangling Time Stood Still (Tim Seasamh Seimh) and Kerry Can You Hear Me?, a ballad that builds from the gentle sea-spray tang of the Lewis coastline to a rousing tidal flood.
It’s unlikely to prompt a rush to sign up for language courses. But as both a celebration of cultural heritage and a damn good collection of guitar driven folk rock, it does the job most effectively.
Review by: Mike Davies
Released on Ceol’s Craic, Out now
Order via Amazon