Joy Dunlop – Caoir : Album Review

A robust revisiting of the Gaelic, a revitalised and retro revamp into folk rock from Joy Dunlop.

Release date: 24th March 2023

Label: Sradag Music

Format: CD / digital


Joy Dunlop, from what I understand, is a somewhat serious artist. Steeped in the true Gaelic tradition, you’d never get her sullying her muse with the ephemera of popular and more modern musical forms. And, a bit like June Tabor, you wouldn’t dream of her messing about with electric guitars and rhythm sections. (Oh…. )

So, this is where, like June with Oysterband, she gets to rock out and have some fun. (Don’t get me wrong, her other stuff is fine too). It is a full ten years since her last solo release, the time since occupied mainly with TV work; she presents the weather on BBC Alba, as well as being a regular music presenter for that same Gaelic channel. Think a cross between Carol Kirkwood and Julie Fowlis, but actually don’t. She has also been involved in a number of Gaelic choirs, as well as performing with her brother, Andrew, and with a female Scots-Irish acoustic band, LAS. This release sees her team up with a bevy of seasoned performers to take on an, if you will, folk-rock take on Gaelic song. And if that sounds a bit old hat, in these days of neo-trad and gaelictronica, where jazz hues can meet with slabs of funk, and dub is not considered unusual, well, you’d be wrong. Feeling delightfully retro against all that, this modern for Joy recording is a delight, and the quality of the band and arrangements eradicates, from the out, any element of either the twee or the lumpen. So, full marks to the band: Mhairi Marwick on fiddle, Ron Jappy and Euan Malloch on guitars, Gus Stirrat on bass and Ifedade Thomas the drummer. Stirrat recorded it all, with mastering by Peter Beckmann.

The album is called Caoir and the whole shebang kicks off in muted overdrive for the unambiguous Jigs, a rumble of bass accompanying the shuffling percussion that acts as a comfortable bed for Dunlop’s pristine voice. The two tunes here are both originally puirt a beul, that non-instrumental Gaelic mouth music that translates sometimes less well when wed with instrumental backing, but, with Marwick’s fiddle slowly sweeping tonal connections, and guitars strumming languidly, the build is gradual, deliberate, and effective. A swoop of fiddle beckons in the next layer, which, after a further stanza or two of the staccato vocalisation, is of choppier guitar, first with chords and then with a quietly lyrical solo that echoes the earlier fiddle part, the two then pairing.

Already this is showing promise. And that promise is met by Ged Is Grianach An Latha, a slower waulking song over a slowly evolving backing, with fiddle, guitar and bass slowly limbering up over the first couple of verses, atmospheric sounds of dawn, the song translating as Although The Day Is Sunny. Held by the vocal melody, the backing becomes more formed and substantive. Dunlop is double-tracked with herself to add occasional emphasis to the mood. Marwick again provides the main contrast to the rhythmic vocal repetition, and the birdsong that closes it adds further to the ambience of slight mystery.

Am Bràighe is perhaps more orthodox, a more recently written song, maybe a century old, the rhythm section slotting in just where they should, a subtle presence and certainly not bolted on. Again I find myself loving the fiddle, Marwick herself now getting the double track experience, dancing with herself in the middle eight. Who is this player and where has she been? The answer is quietly building a name in teaching music, often to children, with an MG Alba Trad award, no less for being 2018’s tutor of the year. The wife of the producer and piper, Scott Wood, she has also popped up across a wide scattering of the albums by others, and plays, with Wood, in Celtic Worship, a band playing Christian music in a Scottish neo-trad idiom. As indeed do Stirrat and Thomas, with an outcome that can and should cause some swallowing of any misconceived prejudices. Talking of Stirrat and Thomas, they now provide, along with the guitars, an ominous throb to the start of Mo Nighean Donn Hò Gù. Dunlop shows her peerless capability to be somehow both sweet and strident, pure and powerful, all at the same time. Of course, there is more vibrant fiddle play, and Jappy’s potent acoustic strum here gives added momentum to the velocity. If the possible template for this project might have conceivably been Capercaillie, this is a muscular reinterpretation that stands up for the 21st century.

Cadal Cuain begins with just picked guitar and Dunlop’s soaring voice. The newest song here, it is a delightful construct, with all the band members adding gentle touches that fully enhance the overall delivery. A beautiful tune, it lingers long, begging repeat plays to fully draw in the nuances all present. Possibly the standout track. That mood is somewhat shattered by a further burst of puirt a beul, if swiftly forgiven, again by the skill with which the vocal meets the arrangement. Entitled Puirt A Beul, this becomes all the more apparent in the second part of four, the gears stepped up in a double declutch of Malloch, Stirrat and Thomas, who become almost threatening, in a propulsive segment that then bursts into a glorious fiddle reel, before Dunlop takes back the wheel for the final escalation.

Keeping all ears guessing, the mood is then ramped right back for the impressively maudlin Bàs Na Cailliche Bèire. Trying to avoid any mere reiteration of the fully informative sleevenotes, which describe each the songs, and also give the lyrics, in both the original Gaelic and in English translation, this one does warrant a lift, as the song is about a one-eyed female giant. Her routine insisted on a once-a-century loch bath, which could only take place without the sound of any dog barking. (Can you guess the rest?) It is a glorious track, with Jappy’s guitar evoking a harp, before Malloch comes in with some graceful electric. Dunlop has just the right timbre here for, irrespective of language, a clearly very sad tale. The closing moments of this one make an argument for the whole project, indeed for the validity of electrification and amplification of the tradition as a whole. I dare you to not find this out and prove me right. Even if it is followed by the salsa-like intro to Port Na Cailliche (or The Old Crone) which could, or ought, be about the same person, even if, apparently, it isn’t. Whilst it still works, had it come any earlier on this album, it may have sat less well, feeling of lighter weight than the rest of this album. The bassline is great, tho’. (It is throughout: cop the video below!)

Pushing such jollity aside, Duthaith MhicAoidh, is then hauntingly and dauntingly gaunt. A song well known, this has been previously sung by Kathleen Innes and by Julie Fowlis, amongst others, so no pressure. A lament around the highland clearances, Dunlop nails it and this is a stunning version, raising both goosebumps and the short hairs upon them. Largely fiddle and voice, with occasional strums of guitar, the drums offer just a slow background rumble that stays much where it began. An astonishing version. Realising that would be impossible to follow, a wise decison is made to follow it with a further pairing made of mouth music. Entitled Reels, these cleanse the palate and leave the listener less stricken, simpler and lively calisthenics of voice and instrumentation, that act as a decent summary of this engaging and, largely, upbeat and uplifting record. Did I say that Caoir means a blaze of fire, fiercely burning, flames or flashes? That sounds about right and, were I Dunlop, like MacInnes and Fowlis before her, I would be now be awaiting a call from the likes of Niteworks, so as to make her transition complete.

Here is one of the upbeat songs, Mo Nighean Donn Hò Gù:

Joy Dunlop online: website / facebook / twitter / Instagram

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