Album Review: Faileasan by Joy Dunlop

Joy Dunlop’s sophomore solo recording is a deeply felt and carefully curated showcase of Gaelic music from her native Argyll. Joy notes in the CD jacket that every part of the project was sourced locally, which is sure to win her well-deserved praise. As an American Gaelic learner and musician, I’m accustomed to most every song I encounter having a connection to one of the Inner or Outer Hebridean Islands, so the opportunity to hear eleven songs with mainland origins piqued my interest immediately.

Joy’s singing is deeply traditional in style, giving it the light, agile, and steady quality that characterizes the best of Gaelic aesthetics and technique. She has an underlying warmth and mellowness in her sound that opens up the traditional singing timbre, giving her voice an overall appeal that will reach a broad audience, I think.

In the execution of the recording, the vocal tracks have a slight sense of distance from the listener, as if Joy was a little further from the microphone than we’re used to. To my ear, the effect moves her voice slightly in front of the instruments without being any higher in volume. It’s something I’ve heard on one or two other traditional recordings from the U.K. and I find it innovative and effective.

Most of the work of arranging on the recording is credited to various combinations of Joy herself, Andrew Dunlop, and Sorren MacLean sometimes joined by other contributing musicians. I would characterize the results as modern, innovative, and deeply serious. The introductions, additional melodic motifs, chord progressions, and instrument choices are interesting without drawing too much attention to themselves. The opening track, Ma phòsas mi idir, cha ghabh mi té mhór (If I marry at all, I won’t wed a big girl) is a great example of this. The border pipe hook played by Lorne MacDougall sticks in your ear the first time you hear it on the track and pulls you forward through the building phases of the song arrangement until the climactic ending at which I uncharacteristically exclaimed “Oh yeah!” on first hearing.

As a Gaelic learner myself, I appreciate the care that Joy takes with her enunciation. I didn’t have any trouble understanding the lyrics by the second listen through which is not always the case. I also appreciate her providing her song-by-song liner notes in both Gaelic and English (Gaelic first, of course).

One of the stand-out tracks for me on this recording was An Roghainn (The Choice). It’s a modern poem composed by the late Somhairle Mac’Illeathain who is widely regarded as the greatest Gaelic poet of the 20th century. It was set to music by the Taynuilt legend Donald Shaw in 2010. The poem’s protagonist walks on the beach accompanied by his personified understanding that his true love will wed another on Monday next. Through the verses, he reconciles himself to the painful truth that having been timid and lukewarm, he created the situation in which he finds himself. It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful example of the Gaelic cultural practice of song/poem making as both emotional therapy and a method of recording hard-won realizations.

The recording has many tracks that are upbeat and lighthearted as well. My favourite is ‘S fhad’ an sealladh (Distant is my view) which keeps your foot tapping with its uneven and forward-leaning meter and rhythm.

The world of Gaelic speakers and non-speaking Gaelic music fans is a small one. We see some hopeful signs coming out of both Scotland and Nova Scotia though, and recordings like Faileasan play a vital role in restoring prestige and relevance to Gaelic music and culture. After all, how many of us are willing to learn a language because we should? We are attracted to things because they’re exciting and sexy. Fair warning: Joy Dunlop’s new CD is exciting and sexy enough that it may make you want to learn Gaelic.


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Comment by Thomas Henry Hogan aka HHH on July 4, 2013 at 14:50
That was a well written review of Joy Dunlop's new album, Thanks !

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