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Fiona Mackenzie - Elevate - The Living Tradition


13 October 2008
The Living Tradition
Roy Harris

Fiona MacKenzie has a reputation as a Gaelic singer from the Isle of Lewis, particularly with her sisters as a member of MacKenzie known for their pure, sweet harmonies. But on her first solo album, she has chosen to diverge from the image of the traditional Gaelic singer and instead has released a much more worldly album. Her voice is more textured and mature, while her original songs are expressive and lyrically beautiful. And although she has recorded the album predominantly in English, she has not left her Gaelic roots behind. The album begins with When the Sunny Sky has Gone which sets the tone for the rest of the album. The song has a pared down arrangement, with just MacKenzie's vocals and guitar, joined minimally by piano. The brief song is filled with raw emotion and harmonies that almost don't work, but MacKenzie pulls them through, creating a song that is nearly impossible not to like.

The next few songs have similarly minimal arrangements with a few containing fuller sounds with additional instruments and more complicated arrangements, including the harmonies that few singers could pull off so successfully. They are reminiscent of Jane Siberry's on her album "Hush". A particular highlight of the album is the song At the Bottom of the Sea. Once again, in the hands of another arranger this song could have become a pop anthem, but MacKenzie and her collaborator Calum Malcolm manage to avoid this pitfall, instead creating a song of love and devotion. The title track Elevate, is  a folky sounding song filled with clever lyrics, quirky turns of phrase, haunting chorus vocals and intriguing pauses.

Several Gaelic songs are included, two by Eilidh MacKenzie, Fiona's sister, and once by poet Sorely MacLean. These songs have a more traditional feel, but never break with the overall mood that the album creates. An Roghainn (The Choice) is a Sorely MacLean poem about regrets over lost love, while Eilidh MacKenzie's pieces are short and expressive, regardless of the language of their composition. The arrangements of the first two Gaelic songs remain simple, telling their stories through MacKenzie's vibrant, versatile voice. The third, Hi o He, written by Eilidh MacKenzie, has a more electronic arrangement, making it somewhat of a standout.

MacKenzie has created an elegant album containing beautifully written songs and sensitive, soulful arrangements. Her voice ranges from gentle and tender to full and forceful, while her lyrics are always thought provoking and insightful. She also has a particularly ingenious turn of phrase, writing lyrics that invoke emotions on the listener.

They draw on everyday, accessible topics, but present them in new and interesting ways.

This album is a brilliant album, not just for a debut solo album, but for any singer-songwriter at any point in their career. It will appeal to a much broader audience than the standard folk and trad people, but would be a great addition to any collection for those days when you want something engaging and thoughtful. A well constructed and wrtten album.

 


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