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Celtic Woman Celtic Woman
Album: Ancient Land
Label: Manhattan
Tracks: 18

Unashamedly mainstream and commercial in its dewy-eyed evocation of a romantic and romanticised magical Ireland of mists, mountains, castles, bards and lasses ready to burst into dance at the touch of a tin whistle, even so, unless you're an absolute purist who demands the authentic undiluted taste of peat to your Celtic musical brew, this makes for stirring listening. The first album to feature new member Megan Walsh who replaced the pregnant Susan McFadden, it features long-time members Máiréad Carlin, Éabha McMahon, and violinist Tara McNeil accompanied by a full ensemble of musicians that includes the Orchestra of Ireland strings plus, of course, a battery of Uillean pipes and whistles.

Their 12th studio album in 13 years, it again fuses traditional and contemporary song choices, including six written by producer Gavin Murphy, among them the atmospheric fiddle-led instrumental (with choral vocals) title track opener. The first vocal track comes with a stirring cover of Mick Hanly's 'Homeland', the girls' breathy vocals and Murphy's arrangement giving it the full anthemic touch.

McMahon takes the solo spotlight on a traditional 'Moorlough Shor', a love songs from the 1800s, gradually building from its spare setting to a fuller climax before ebbing away on keys and drums. Then we're back to livelier musical ground with Murphy's 'Follow Me' before Máiréad's solo turn on Tommy Sands' homesickness ballad 'County Down'.

Tara gets to showcase her fiddle skills on two tracks, the first up being the forlorn melancholy of 'Love & Honour', the full orchestra, solo cello and whistles joining in as it builds to a climax, the second coming with the more spirited trad cocktail of 'Tara's Tunes'.

There's only two numbers sung in Gaelic on the CD, 'Mná Na hÉireann' or 'Women of Ireland', a number from the rebel tradition being the setting by Irish composer Seán Ó Riada of a poem by 18th century Ulster poet Peadar Ó Doirnín, the arrangement here building on the original air with drums, harp and strings.

The second follows with, following the whistles and fiddle intro, the three singers taking a verse each on 'Sive', a song about a boatman gone courting also known as 'Sadhbh Ni Bhruinneallaigh'. Thoughts of Irish emigration the bubble up as the cross the Atlantic for Megan to take her first solo with the aching pipes-haunted sounds of 'Shenadoah'. As such, it seems appropriate to follow this with the Elvis Costello/Paddy Moloney anthem 'Long Journey Home', both numbers having appeared on and been performed by The Chieftains on the PBS documentary celebration of the Irish in America. As you'd expect, it gets a full-blooded treatment here, bagpipes included, building to a vaulting crescendo.

Scots will be up in arms by the fact that the album credits 'Ae Fond Kiss' as a traditional number rather than Robert Burns' most famous poem, but such a glaring error is compensated by a tender reading from Máiréad accompanied by accordion and mandolin.

Megan, who has a deeper, more vibrato voice than the others, takes her second solo on the waltzing 'Faith's Song', affording deserved wider exposure for songwriter Amy Wadge, then it's over again to Éabha for her self-penned swayalong country-tinged Irish pop 'Garden of Eden', the mood calming down again for 'Be Still', a 90-second number that stars of as hushed as the breaking dawn as the three voices weave together backed by a male choir that curiously gives it a Welsh chapel feel.

Uillean pipes herald 'Going Home', a song written by American songwriter Mary Fahl which featured over the opening of the Civil War films Gods and Generals, the military drum beat joined by the skirl of bagpipes in the final stretch. It ends with two final Murphy numbers, 'The Enchanted Way', a spritely whistles and fiddle instrumental that features Daryn Crosbie and Alan McGrath on a whirlwind of tap steps, and, going out in swing your partners, slap your thighs style, 'Ballroom of Romance' which dares you to remain in your seat.

The CD also comes with a DVD (also available separately) of the concert version filmed against the backdrop of historic Johnstown Castle in County Wexford, that adds a further five numbers, including 'Over The Rainbow', 'Danny Boy', 'Siúil A Rúin', 'The Parting Glass' and 'Amazing Grace'.

A big, glossy and meticulously synchronised production, perhaps, far removed from the bars or backrooms where many of these traditional numbers would have been performed, but put aside any folk snobbery and just get caught up in the swell.

Mike Davies