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Kaela Rowan Kaela Rowan
Album: The Fruited Thorn
Label: Shoogle
Tracks: 11

Kaela first came to my attention as lead vocalist with groundbreaking crossover fusion outfit Mouth Music, before moving on to co-found The Bevvy Sisters; latterly, as a member of Shooglenifty, she made a telling contribution to the band's latest album The Untied Knot. In between these adventures, in 2014, she made a solo album, Menagerie, in collaboration with James Mackintosh; although this album had its moments of creative success, I found it uneven and at times surprisingly anonymous, with insufficient use made of Kaela's extraordinary vocal versatility within the sometimes overly sprawling soundscape. All has changed with Kaela's second solo album, The Fruited Thorn, which is an exquisitely focused exploration of traditional song, carried out in tandem with her "band" (fellow-Shooglenifty members Ewan Macpherson and husband James Mackintosh) and generously yet selectively augmented with the acutely pointed musicianship of Ewan Vernal, Dave Milligan, Griogair Labhruidh, Jarlath Henderson, John McCusker, Patsy Reid and - most intriguingly - the incredible Rajasthani singer Dayam Khan Manganiyar. The latter can be heard on just two tracks: the epic closer Griogal Chridhe, a 16th century ballad which here beautifully intertwines Gaelic and Marwari words, and the heartrending Gaelic song Eilean Fhianain (St. Finnan's Isle) which was composed by Charlie MacFarlane and Alasdair Grant. These prove mesmerising highlights among a disc of truly outstanding performances.

But the adjective "mesmerising" can be applied to every track on this album, where Kaela's assured and ever-imaginative vocal work ebbs and flows with the demands of the texts, sometimes lyrical and flowing, at other times slightly spiky and fractured, quite often on the cusp of fragility but always spontaneously responsive and yet considered. Kaela takes her principal interpretive cue from Sheila Stewart, whose words of wisdom ("You search and you find your soul and you put that into your singing") stand out in bold type on the package; yes indeed, Kaela, that is what makes a good storyteller! For she's come a long way since her days as a young session singer, from which experience (and exposure to a number of important and inspirational singers) she learned many of the songs she has chosen to revisit for this album. Its title is plucked from the lyric of Burns' Now Westlin Winds, one of my perennial favourites, which Kaela adopts a sprightly skipping rhythm that sparkles with the charms of nature while rejoicing in the delights of subtle instrumental details. Kaela's intensely reflective, beautifully ornamented take on As I Roved Out is blessed with a gorgeous vocal duet part from Jarlath, and she also turns in a compelling, uncannily powerful account of the classic Irish ballad Lord Gregory and brings the requisite delicately desolate aura to Blackbird (What A Voice), which she learnt from Lizzie Higgins' rendition via Martyn Bennett's iconic Grit album. In contrast, there's a clear-sighted, economical canter through Mary And The Gallant Soldier.

The musical arrangements are every bit as haunting as Kaela's singing, and while individual instrumental "voices" like Jarlath's pipes and Patsy Reid's cello, violin and viola prove a perfect aural match for Kaela, much is also made of the sensitive, warm and spacious textures conjured by James and Ewan which are fully at the service of the songs and the singer, mirroring comparable qualities in the overall production.

Commendably, all relevant information regarding the songs - along with English translations of those in Gaelic - can be found on Kaela's website. Now that's the way to do it!

David Kidman