What it says on the label, a beautiful album from Rachel Walker and Aaron Jones. Worth every penny, to both listener and to the charity.
Release date: 25th February 2022
Label: Self Release (Bandcamp)
Happy puts it mildly, listening to this music takes me to a place way beyond happy, so joyously upbeat is the music, songs and melodies buoyant with vibrancy and life. So, take a step back and consider from whence it came.
Rachel Walker is acknowledged as one of the finest singers in the Gaelic tradition, and possibly the finest to have been born in Lincolnshire. Moving to Lochaber as a small child, she became immersed in the culture, tutored in and nurtured by the Gaelic community, rising through the Fèìs Rois, as she became a confidant performer in both English and Gaelic. A degree in classical music at Edinburgh’s Napier University led to the Scottish music course at Scotland’s Royal Conservatoire. As a member both of Scottish-Irish group, Cruinn, and the West Coast Gaelic rockers Skippinish, she honed her craft, ahead of a solo career, releasing her fourth record, Gaol, in 2020.
Aaron Jones, possibly better known, is a stalwart of Scottish institution, Old Blind Dogs, singing and strumming all manner of stringed instruments. Also the accompanist of choice for BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Scottish Musical of the Year awards, he has been voted as Instrumentalist of the Year for the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2005. However, a year ago to the day or thereabouts, Rachel received the unwelcome diagnosis of breast cancer, receiving both help and support from Maggie’s, a cancer charity, through their Highlands Centre, based in Inverness. Says Rachel: “This EP is a tribute to Maggie’s and all the women I’ve met at the Highlands Centre also going through cancer and its treatment. I have learned that we’re stronger when we face this together and wanted this song to reflect this important sentiment that has got me through the last 12 months. The music is a thank you to all those who have helped me on my journey and the network of incredible women I met along the way. We hope it can be a comfort to others on a similar journey.” Like that message, it is a sense of positivity that perfuses this disc.
It opens with a new song, Song Of Hope, written and sung by the pair in English. They have been collaborators for some time, Jones recording some of the material included on Gaol. Says Jones: “Before and during the early stages of the pandemic, Rachel and I had struck up a very joyful and rewarding writing partnership which we had planned to develop and grow once we were able to get back together in person. When she received her diagnosis it seemed important to us both to maintain our regular writing sessions online to give us some escape. The power of music and the escape of creative flow has been an essential part, not only of Rachel’s recovery but also my own journey through lockdown with a young family.” And that spirit resonates within this song, no maudlin litany of feel-good platitudes, but a genuinely heartwarming paean to finding the way forward. With a timbre not far removed from Mary Black, Walker has a calming lilt about her, the song a duet with Jone’s earthier tones, not a million miles from, no faint praise, a mellower Dick Gaughan. With a piano, Walker, and guitars, Jones, acting as a sympathetic accompaniment, this is an attractive ballad with quite a grip on the ear.
Hope Remains follows, another graceful meandering melody, led by Jones’ voice, maintaining a sense of bittersweet poignancy, before the harmony chorus leavens the mood. A Gaelic “waulking” song, Càite Bheil I Ann Am Muile then steps up the pace briskly, Jones’ cittern framing Walker’s vocal, the bodhran of Martin O’Neil an engaging extra metronome. The really displays the classy beauty of her singing style, something, in the wrong hands, that can seem a bit shrill. Not so here, the electric piano tinkling a counterpoint to the warmth of her and the later unison voices.
Another English language song, Waiting For Love, opens with a strong throwback, redolent of classic Clannad, before Jones conducts a trad version of what could be Friday I’m In Love, were it written by Dougie Maclean. Astonishingly, for anyone wracking their brain for that lost tang of distant memory, the original was by the electro-poppers, Avicii! Finally, to close this exquisite little nugget of a disc, comes a second song in the Gaelic, An Innis Àigh, again a showcase for Walker, Jones adding some muted and nuanced electric guitar.
Don’t let the fact that this is a charity record put you off, anymore than that should stop you snapping it up. It is as uplifting as any set of songs I can expect to hear this year, and the shortness almost accentuates the sweetness. All the proceeds, not just some, all the proceeds will go directly towards Maggie’s. At the risk of influencing you further, wait a week and a Bandcamp Friday purchase, the first of the month, will give the charity that much more. It will help them, but, even better, win-win, it will bear repeated listens and enjoyment, perhaps leading you to dig deeper into the repertoire of these talented artists.
Here is a video of the duo in earlier days, a song written, by Walker, for the Year of Scotland’s Coasts and Waters, in 2020. It’s called Uisge Ruth Gu Siorraidh Buan.