With their debut recording as the duo MacAlias, Gill Bowman and Karine Polwart have tied traditional Scottish songs to contemporary compositions, their striking harmony vocals serving as musical glue. What's more, Highwired sports a persistent subtext of country music, noticeable in song selection, lyrics, and the choice of supporting instrumentation, including lap steel, harmonica, fiddle, and mandolin. Their voices exhibit similar tonal range, fine articulation of each and every syllable, and a tight vibrato that enables them to snap in and out of notes precisely. The result is thrilling, sister-like harmony, more like that of the McGarrigles than the Roches.
"All the Way Back Home" begins the album, a quick guitar strum with lap steel and harmonica lending tight female harmonies a decided country flavor, despite profound Scottish accents. "Wild West Romance" consolidates the country theme, a gentle rocking waltz, Bowman's lead vocal warbling tight as a string, accordion, harmonica and vibrato guitar adding a cowboy Celtic feel, the two voice singing in a round on the break. That old rake Rabbie Burns makes his appearance in "The Rantin' Dog/The De'il's Awa wi' th' Exciseman," starting with a slow song of paternity, then speeding into a folk-rock rant, a nice fiddle break and driving drums recalling Steeleye Span.
"I Don't Think She Will Stay" is a slow sad portrait of a dying romance, focusing on the man's faltering personality, Bowman's solo vocal finely articulated in both note and phoneme. It is thematically contrasted with Polwart's "Take Me in Your Arms," an unrestrained song of the springtime of love, upbeat with banjo and harmonica. I particularly appreciate Polwart's "John C. Clarke," a deceptively simple song of ordinary people engaged in ordinary things, ennobled by the clear, humorous perspective of the narrator on her improbable romance with a gas installer, a fairy tale for everyperson.
The remaining tracks on Highwired, including interpretations of and songs about Burns, are also treats. - Jim Foley
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