Fiddle faddle

Crusading for Cape Breton

On his new album, Ashley MacIsaac has made the unfortunate decision to move away from his strengths.

One of the world’s great fiddlers, and the best known of Canada’s traditional Cape Breton players, MacIsaac’s talents on the fiddle, especially in live shows, are legendary. So it’s hard to understand why, on his new album, the fiddle playing is largely relegated to instrumental flourishes and the focus is shifted to churning out songs from the Nashville hit factory.

MacIsaac even sings on six of the album’s 13 tracks, another bad decision. On his previous albums, MacIsaac stuck to playing and largely left the singing to guest vocalists. Here, we see why. Trouble starts on the very first track, a cover of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song” that turns Drake’s gentle melancholy into robust fervour. MacIsaac’s voice lacks all the subtlety necessary to convey the song’s emotions, and the music lacks the original’s delicacy.

Things get no better on the second track, “Lay Me Down,” where the album’s attempts to hit the contemporary pop/country charts begin. The fiddle provides little more than a country accent, as MacIsaac’s Gaelic heritage and passion vanish. And his voice, again, is simply too rough for the pop he’s trying to sing. On several tracks, notably “Grapes” and “Fairy Dance,” MacIsaac seems to have all but abandoned actual singing, preferring to more or less just shout out the words.

There are guest vocalists on the album, but they fare little better. Sister Lisa MacIsaac is buried under more Nashville polish on “Save Me From Tomorrow,” Lara Grey is lost to distortion on “This Is My Father” and even the superb Mary Jane Lamond has to contend with an inexplicable hip-hop backing on “To America We Go,” even as her crystalline voice revels in the Gaelic lyrics.

There’s also a completely pointless cover of Paul McCartney’s “Mull Of Kintyre,” sung by Dallas Smith of Default. Smith’s voice lacks any of McCartney’s sweetness, making a virtually straight ahead reading of the song that much more puzzling. Surely, if you’re going to cover McCartney, you want to do something different with it.

The best tracks on the album, unsurprisingly, are the two traditional instrumental tracks, “Chorus Jig/The King’s Reel” and “Bog An Login.” For those two tracks, and those two only, MacIsaac reminds us of why we loved him, as his fiery playing channels his Cape Breton heritage into something refreshingly genuine.

* Ashley MacIsaac tours with his sister Lisa’s band Madviolet, playing the Phoenix Concert Theatre (410 Sherbourne St) at 8:30pm on Thu, Apr 3. Tix costs $15 advance or $20 at the door; call (416) 870-8000.


Ashley MacIsaac.

Decca Records. $9.99.

Krishna Rau

Krishna Rau is a Toronto-based freelance writer with extensive experience covering queer issues.

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