String Sisters – Between Wind & Water
Self Released – 16 February 2018
The term supergroup has long been associated with rock bands, think Blind Faith or Derek & The Dominoes, but with String Sisters, the epithet can justifiably be applied to their brand of folk music too. And just how many fiddlers does it take to make a folk supergroup? Well, six appears to be a good number. Throw in a further quartet of backline musicians of international renown on piano, drums, bass and guitar and the line-up is complete, (well almost, see later).
Founded at Celtic Connections way back in 2001, ostensibly as a one-off project, by Shetland fiddler Catriona Macdonald, this release sees Catriona, (Blazin’ Fiddles, The Unusual Suspects) and currently Senior Lecturer at Newcastle University, joined by a truly International set of award-winning musicians with Annbjørg Lien from Norway, Liz Carrol and Liz Knowles (USA), Emma Härdelin (Garmana, Triakel), (Sweden) and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, (Altan) from Ireland, on fiddles, together with bass player Conrad Molleson (Shooglenifty, Stringjammer), drummer & percussionist James Mackintosh (Capercaillie), pianist Dave Mulligan and guitarist Tore Bruvoll (Hekla Stålstrenga).
Celebrated around the world for their electric live performances, this is their first studio release, the only other recording being the 2007 ‘Live’ collection. For many then, an important question would be can the verve and energy present on stage performances transfer to the studio? The answer is a resounding yes. This is an album in which the essence of world-class fiddle music has not only been captured, but distilled into 12 potent shots.
Conceived in the summer of 2017 in Mareel, Shetland’s musical and creative centre, a location ideally situated at a confluence of the Celtic and Nordic musical traditions represented by the band members, and recorded at locations as varied as Edinburgh, Chicago, Tromsø, Donegal, Shetland and Nova Scotia, crowdfunding ensured the project’s completion.
Nominally 12 tracks, in fact, six of the offerings comprise two or more elements, akin to ‘sets’. In addition to traditional tunes from Ireland, Norway, Shetland, Scotland, Sweden and the US, there is also a rich vein of original tunes and songs composed by a healthy seven out of the ten group members, giving a great depth and variety to the work as a whole, albeit whilst remaining very much in the mould of ‘traditional folk’.
Over the course of the 59 and a half minutes of this CD, one is transported from exhilaration, through wistful, melancholic ballads, to ethereal, atmospheric lullabies only to be returned for repeat rides on this roller-coaster of a musical journey.
Opening track, The Crow’s Visit, incorporating Liz Carroll’s As The Crow Flies and Annbjørg’s A Visit, fairly zips out of the speakers, infused as it is with vibrant electricity; my only complaint is that it has given me an earworm which refuses to be dislodged. In a similar vein, Open To The Elements and Tiger In The Galley, the former a set of four reels, the latter comprising a traditional Swedish polka along with another original Liz Carroll tune, keep up the intensity, defying anyone to keep their feet still.
Not all of the instrumental tunes presented, however, are such high tempo outings, thus helping to establish the light and shade that pervades Between Wind & Water. Vinterfolk, Tore’s compositional contribution, initially features delicate guitar over piano before building, courtesy of the other group members, into an almost march-like poly-symphonic treat. Similarly, Return From Helsinki, an instrumental composed by Ian Stephenson, a student from Catriona’s first university course intake in 2001, is a beautiful tune, redolent, in places, of the nature and landscape-inspired work of the great Finnish composer and violinist, Sibelius.
When vocals make an appearance, this only adds to the overall allure of the CD. On Wind And Rain, the Child Ballad Twa Sisters is mournfully presented as a glorious duet by Emma & Mairéad, not as you might expect as one of the 120 or so extant Swedish versions, but in a trad American form. Emma takes the lead too on Det Bor I Mina Tanka, a traditional Swedish song of unrequited love and, indeed, betrayal; hauntingly delivered here against some plaintive piano accompaniment. It is, perhaps, a sign of the quality of the track, that the sorrowful emotions are readily conveyed without the need for knowledge of Swedish. Mo Nion Ó (My Daughter O), a delightful lullaby written by Mairéad for her daughter Nia, has the composer harmonising with Emma to produce a sound that is ethereal and almost other-worldly.
The track Hjaitland, a set of three tunes, has Dolkaen, a Hardanger fiddle tune from Setesdal, Norway, sandwiched between a composition by Catriona and a traditional Shetland maritime tune. It is on this track, together with Late Night in Førde, that Annbjørg’s expertise and talent on the hardingfele come centre stage. A Hardanger fiddle, famously used on soundtracks to Lord Of The Rings and Dunkirk, has eight or nine strings, the top four of which are strung and played like a violin, while the rest, the under or sympathetic strings, resonate under the influence of the top four; on Between Wind & Water, in the hands of such a virtuoso as Annbjørg, it sounds superb.
Returning to the comment at the outset related to numbers in the group, the album closes with a final set of three tunes, The Blooming Conductor, played live, in which, presumably just to confirm that you really can never have too many, an extra fiddle, courtesy of guest, Liz Doherty, joins in the fun. Thus the album finishes very much as it started, with exuberant, powerful and energetic and above all, flawless, music.
Between Wind & Water is a joyous smorgasbord of Nordic Celtic traditional music that fairly warms the cockles and lifts the spirits.
Order it here: http://www.stringsisters.net/