Olivia Ross, from The Shee, in a solo set where she keeps the faith over many levels.
Release Date: 1st September 2023
Format: CD/digital (via Bandcamp)
On the same day as her erstwhile mentor, Kathryn Tickell, put out her latest, so too did Shee violinist, Ross, put out her debut. (Or is that fiddler, I never quite sure the etiquette.) Irrespective, it is an exquisite sound, expanded through the mix of adjoining musicians, themselves representative of the crop of Scottish musicians that make for a cream of those out there. This includes Anna Massie (Blazin’ Fiddles), Rory Matheson ( FARA), Laura Beth Salter (Kinnaris Quintet), amongst others, not to forget the king of the bass and a regular name popping up on the ATB pages, James Lindsay, from Breabach, his name the guarantor of class.
The album kicks off with the mandolin strum led Little Steps, Matheson’s piano pairing with Salter to give a basis for the song. Ross sings in a confident contralto, her fiddle, I’m saying it a fiddle, the sleeve notes do, adding a broad reassuring brush to polish up the song further. An instant comparator, vocally, might be Mary Chapin Carpenter. That feel gets nudged by the country waltz Far From This World, where her tones are even more rounded, with Salter, or possibly Rachel Newton, adding some harmonies. A beautiful solo from Matheson shows he is as adept at a country tinkle as his more usual ceilidh keyboard calisthenic. Those two songs her own, she now takes on the Chris Wood/Hugh Lupton Bleary Winter, giving a Hibernian flavour that sweetens the songs portent; maybe a greater familiarity with the bleariness of winter?
The River bursts through the pace thus far, propelled by the flute of Calum Stewart, flourishes of percussion from Signy Jakobsdottir, before she takes to the full kit, enabling the partnership with Lindsay’s bass to make itself apparent. A song in metaphor, life as a river, it is a song I can hear being taken up by the likes of Karen Matheson, Mary Black and other senior stateswomen of Celtic song. Morning Star is a piano ballad that might, just, offer a hint of Let It Be, before taking its own direction. Lest these two songs be getting all a bit serious, no bad thing in itself, Ross ups the tempo and lightens the mood for a pair of tunes, each written for the wedding of a friend. Called Beccy’s Big Day, paired with Knoydart Ahoy, both court a stately hoof, the unison play well constructed, from the bass and piano to Ross’s fiddle, playing in unison, once more, with Salter. The sign of a good rhythm guitar in Scottish music is the need to hunt for it, Massie delivering her trademark nuanced strum so seamlessly it barely show.s But try listening without it, and there’s a gap.
Little Sparrow is a somewhat maudlin fable around broken love, the piano a chill framework for Ross’s voice to duel with undulations of slow rippling bass. That sombre mood leaks into the plaintive air, Lost Inverlael, a tune written for the settlement of that name, left desolate by the clearances. The fiddle weaves a desperately sad melody, Stewart adding a low whistle to offer, maybe, hope. Or is it just I love instrumental lamentation? Which takes us into the territory of Hallelujah, Ross proudly pinning her allegiance to her faith, for a hymn of praise that may see some turn away. Needlessly so, the same avoiders happy to hear songs about Jah or to make exceptions for the Gospel greats of the Southern US. It is a strong and charming song, and carries the weight of its message lightly and with a memorable tune. And it wouldn’t be the first time a song where the repeated chorus of Hallelujah has passed muster, let’s face it.
The second cover of the album is Iain Sinclair’s The King’s Shilling, sung in Scots and very much in the style of a broadsheet ballad, to the extent I had always thought it traditional. Regardless, it is a cracker, and gets its anti-war message across poignantly. Jock O’Hazledean actually is traditional, and the setting here is a beauty, with Massie’s picked guitar and Matheson’s piano, with an undercurrent of bass making itself slowly known, in time for Ross to ply her mournful fiddle and Salter to add some mandolin strums. In fact, so strong is this rendition, one might have hoped a more prominent frontloading of it, perhaps breaking up some of the earlier Ross compositions. Be that as it may, the set closes with Summer’s Promise, another lilting sway of a song, some neat touches of syncopation in some of the instrumental flourishes, with Jakobsdottir’s brushwork well worth note.
Recorded by good old Barry Reid and produced by Shee bandmate, Rachel Newton, the harpist, the fact that each are musicians also, well versed in this sort of music, add to the lustre this attractive solo debut collection offers.
Here’s the opener, Little Steps: