Molly T. Carlson
If you want a cautionary review--the only reason I can think of for *not* buying this album is that you might subsequently find yourself wanting James' first album, Siubhal, or the more recent group album Na Seoid, on which he also appears. Ah well, easily remedied. Get those too.
What this album is not is flashy, or pretentious. James Graham's pleasant tenor seems to be at the service of the song, a nice change in a world of music which seems more and more centred on self-promotion. The musical arrangements, similarly, are very tasteful, ranging from unaccompanied singing to a charming little bit of electric guitar on the first track, to some very driven acoustic rhythm on "Maili Dhonn".
If Gaelic is not your first language (or a language you speak at all), no need to hide behind that excuse; the liner notes of Greisean Greine are quite generous, not only describing the songs, but giving both the Gaelic lyrics and their English translations.
As for the CD itself--it's delightful. The songs range from the upbeat-but-wistful "Air an Traigh", which reminisces about childhood joy (you can almost taste the salt on the wind of a sunny day along the beach) to the bleak arrangement of "Tha'n Sneachd air Druim Uachdair" ("Snow on Drumochter") to the hearty choruses of "Maili Dhonn" (a love song--to a ship!)
Also of a seafaring nature is the narrative "Siubhal Mar Ri Seoras Dhuinn" which relates the dangers of a voyage off the west coast of Scotland. The words, by the 18th century poet Rob Donn MacKay, are mesmerizing in places; have the liner notes handy to read along as James sings the third verse which ends "Cnocach, copach, sideach, gleannach, glupach, liobach, gorm." Understanding very little Gaelic, I rely on the translation in the liner notes--but listen and tell me if that list of adjectives doesn't just *sound* like waves slapping up and down!
Anyone, whether a seasoned fan of Gaelic music or not, will appreciate the toe-tapping "Puirt a Beal" set. Puirt a beal is a style adapted for singing dance tunes, so the snap of the words is generally of more interest than their sense, as might be gathered from the infectious last tune of the set that begs in translation: "Put me in the meal chest with five bannocks under my head."
If you wish for something with a bit more sentiment, try "Tha mo Ghaol mar Ros as Deirge Flur," a tender Gaelic treatment of Robert Burns' classic "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose" (It is also the only song which does not include an English translation, but, as Burns' poem is in popular circulation, you can find it easily, if you do not already know it.)
I would be hard put to pick an overall favorite from the album, but if pressed to do so, I might show a preference for the last track, "Seonaid," or "Janet," which is simply one of the saddest pieces I have ever heard. I think, even without the translation one would feel the keen sense of loss that the poet felt for his dead wife, writing, "But where is my young girl?" James Ross' sensitive piano certainly does the arrangement no harm but it is also here that James Graham's unpretentious style shines.
In short--it's a keeper. It is an undeniably pleasant album to leave on in the background, but it is even better (if you, like me, have little command of Gaelic) if you can set aside an hour to give it your full attention and devour the liner notes while it is playing. Either way, I believe it will give you a larger appreciation for a fine singing tradition and for a young singer who treats it with such respect.