Here's the High Road's debut album, and it has some quite skillful highs, and also some less fortunate lows. Let's start with some thumbs ups. The title song has an old-timey sound from the banjo, and adds bagpipes to the mix on the instrumental break. The bagpipes with banjo is a more successful venture than the bagpipes with hammer dulcimer on "Drops of Brandy." The banjo holds its own with the bagpipes' tonality, where the more delicate hammer dulcimer tones tend to submerge beneath the instrument. "Drops of Brandy" is still a very enjoyable rendition, it's just that the hammer dulcimer gets lost in the mix. On the other hand, "High Drive" is another upbeat example of the successful pipes/banjo meld. "The Breton Set" starts out slowly as solo flute, then picks up the tempo and adds hammer dulcimer to good effect, as the lighter and more delicate dulcimer sound harmonizes effectively with the flute. Instrumentally, it's quite evident that these three musicians, Iain Mac Harg (bagpipes/flute/whistles/ vocals), Tom MacKenzie (banjo/hammer dulcimer/guitar/keyboards/vocals/songwriting), and Howard Wooden (guitar/bass/bodhran/lead vocals), are experienced and skillful performers. Vocally, The High Road also gives polished performances. There are some nice harmonies on the choruses of "Gin Ye Marry Me," supported with skillful bodhran work. "Down the Coal Town Road" is a very effective a cappella performance of realistically gritty, and also realistically depressing, lyrics. Old-time coal mining had to be one of the most physically stressful, debilitating jobs going, so there's a certain irony in making a beautiful song from that misery, yet that transformation occurs fairly often in musical tradition. Unfortunately, Round the Bend also includes "Petticoat Whalers." Though, let's give benefit of doubt and assume MacKenzie's songwriting is well intended here; still, it's rather too condescending in its praise of women who went to sea, with its lyrics like "she'll wave her petticoat sail upon the bow." Hrrumph. Hardly. This song may have great harmonies, but it needs an attitude adjustment. A vastly more effective, and realistic, treatment of the theme of a woman sailing captain can be heard in Crab Alley's performance of "Lady of the Waves" than in "Petticoat Whalers." Give this song a thumbs down on the too-smug lyrics. Unfortunately, that condescending attitude shows up again in the High Road's choice of the traditional song "The Shearing's No for You," which they describe as "a sweet tease of a song" in their album notes. Maybe it's sweet to the male singing it, but, from a woman's perspective, he's spending a lot of time telling the "bonnie lassie" what he thinks she ought to do, as if he has the right to expect her to do it his way. So from the woman's viewpoint, it's a lot less sweet than annoying. While casual Celtic listeners will quite likely take to the High Road's style, lyricists, particularly those who are also feminists, will be less inclined toward it. It's possible for all-male bands to write and perform songs with a genuinely positive attitude toward women, and listeners who'd like examples of that can check out Carbon Leaf's song "Attica's Flowerbox Window" or Emerald Rose's "Freya, Shakti." Another of MacKenzie's ventures at writing sailing songs, "The Passage" just doesn't quite pull it together, either. While it's capable enough, it's simply not particularly memorable. It could do with more gusto. The best of the sailing songs that they offer here is "Banks of Newfoundland." It's got tuneful banjo and rich vocals, but the problem with it is that it's a go-nowhere song, lyrically. They sail, the captain gets sick and dies, and they pray to make safe harbor. That's it. The song lacks a conclusion. One can assume somebody made it ashore to sing the song, but it could have stood to tell that in the verses. Of all the multitude of sailing songs, why choose a song that stops in mid-passage? It's odd. Again, the words need work. Overall, instrumentally and harmonically, Round the Bend is an enjoyable listen. It's the lyrics that could do with an upgrade. It's a workable start, yet it will be interesting to hear what the High Road follows this album with.
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