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The Cottars

Review By Steven Stone
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CD Number: Rounder Records 11661-7064-2 


  I assume the TV reception up in Cape Breton ain't too good. That's the only explanation I can come up with as to why so many fine young traditional musicians hail from Cape Breton; it's sort of like a Canadian version of Lubbock, Texas, but with water.

The Cottars consists of two brother/sister duos that combined forces in 2000 to make up a four-person band. Sixteen year-old Fiona MacGillivray sings lead vocals and plays whistles, harp and Bodhran. Her seventeen year-old brother, Ciaran, plays keyboards, guitar, flute, and does the band's arrangements. Fifteen year-old Roseanne MacKenzie plays fiddle, while her eighteen year-old brother, Jimmy plays rhythm guitar. Fortunately at least one of them is old enough to drive a car. None can legally drink. Despite their tender ages these kids are mature musicians.

Most of the material on Forerunner comes from the vast troves of traditional Cape Breton fiddle tunes and ballads, but two Tom Waits songs as well as a tune from Karine Polwart and Ron Hynes join the cornucopia of polkas, jigs, and reels. In addition to stellar instrumental solos the Cottars serve up some arresting three-part harmonies. On "Byker Hill" their voices hit like a big Marshall amplifier turned up to 11. Some voices just sound as if they were made to sing together – the Rankin Family Band comes to mind. The Cottars achieve a similar level of vocal integration.

Forerunner was co-produced by Gordie Sampson and Fiona and Ciaran's father, Allister Mac Gaillivray. According to the liner notes itwas done in two separate studio sessions, one in Cape Breton and the other in Nashville. I dare you to tell which song is recorded where by the sound. Only by comparing the orchestrations with the list of additional musicians can I begin to figure it out. Mastering engineer Adam Ayan at Gateway Mastering did a fine job of matching both sessions. In every case the sound is both dynamic and harmonically full. The balance between acoustic and electric instruments favors the acoustics, which makes sonic sense given the nature of the music.

Balancing the countervailing influences of authentic verses modern, commercial yet honest, and accessible but novel is a tall order. The Cottars' Forerunner succeeds on all counts. I expect they will garner many fans in the near future.




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