Debateable Lands, the latest from Northumbrian piper/fiddler Kathryn Tickell, shows continuous progress, not so much in her instrumental mastery, which has long been apparent, but in her compositional talents: songwriting, the "art of the medley," and the skill to craft a fine recording. Northumbrian pipes offer a smoother, less shrill and cutting timbre than their highland cousins, and Tickell teases them into a galaxy of nuance, ranging from exultant, preternaturally quick cascades, to gripping focus on each note of a slow melody. Her backing band features acoustic guitar, melodeon, bass, and a second fiddle to complement her own.
The medley "Road to the North/Hanging Bridge/All at Sea" is a synopsis of the recording's virtues, beginning with a pretty, calm fiddle duet, transiting into a quiet, ethereal fingerpicked guitar foundation surmounted by circling pipes, culminating in a swinging jig with some surprising chord changes and melodic turns. An advanced class is given in "The Magpie/Rothbury Road/Cold Shoulder," kicking off with an ominous march, pulsing melodeon and swinging pipes, followed by a quietly powerful straight time interlude, pipes following the beat closely with grace trills at the end of each figure, hypnotic, fugue-like. The climactic segment features a deliberate guitar-and-bass driven beat with pipes soaring into exuberant melodies, before subsiding into a slow drone ending. Debateable Lands is not entirely speed and heat, however. The first part of "Our Kate/The Welcome Home" is a slow waltz, emotive high pipes caressing a heartbreakingly lovely melody, reprised to very different effect on the final track in a simple duet with Uilleann pipes. The title medley even offers a Scandinavian flavor in the fiddles of "Armstrong's Schottische." This one satisfies from start to finish. - Jim Foley
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