Mellowosity, the debut CD from the Scottish band the Peatbog Faeries, is wonderfully misleading in its packaging. A quick glance at the credits on the back reveals a synthesizer alongside all the usual traditional instruments (bodhran, fiddle, whistles, pipes, etc.). So this is another Corrs-type band, blending traditional Celtic songs with pop beats, right? Wrong.
What we have here is the most innovative (and sneaky) jazz album to emerge since Cassandra Wilson made her debut. But it’s also the trickiest new age album to emerge in years. And it’s got some amazing rock ‘n’ reel moments, too. In the guise of a traditional performance, this Scottish band has developed a truly unique sound. As with other alleged worldbeat bands (notably Boiled In Lead and Dead Can Dance), the Peatbog Faeries have created an entirelyinstrumental sound that breaks barriers that we never even knew existed.
The Faeries are a group of six men from Scotland (the Isle of Skye, to be precise) who have been together for three years (although, according to the official Web site, some form of the group has existed for at least half a decade). All of them are lifetime musicians, and it shows in their easy ability to shift styles and rhythms, not only from tune to tune, but within tunes as well.
The album starts off innocently enough, with over forty seconds of nothing but Peter Morrison’s carefree whistles. As “Lexy Macaskill” progresses, Nurudin’s keyboards and synth enter and take the song from peaceful straight to haunting, taking us into John Carpenter territory in no time at all. As the rest of the band joins in, the song shifts its moods across the spectrum for five minutes, setting the pace for the rest of the album.
With “Eiggman,” the second track, the group gives us a jazz riff on the keyboards, and somehow works the pipes into the tune smoothly. By the time Ben Ivitsky’s fiddle joins the fray, it’s hard to believe that there are jazz bands out there that don’t use traditional folk instruments. Innes Hutton’s skill with the bodhran only reinforces this feeling.
The new age feel comes into play on “the manali beetle (f..f..f..f..),” the third and best track on the CD. The song begins with nothing but crickets chirping for more than twenty seconds, then adds the faint sound of pipes. Once the band has convinced us that they merely placed a tape recorder in a Scottish field and walked away, the slow beat of the bodhran and the mellow pulse of the keyboards take the song to a new territory. More than on any other song, we see here the incredible range of styles that have influenced the Faeries.
“The Macedonian woman’s rant,” the first non-original composition on the CD, is an incredibly upbeat song with wonderful fiddles and drums (the latter provided by Iain Copeland) that will all but force anyone within hearing range to tap their feet and drum their fingers (something that makes writing this review while listening to the CD extremely difficult). The almost Arabian fiddle solo in the middle of the tune, instead of being jarring, flows perfectly, leading right back into the near-reel feel of the closing refrains.
“Angus Mackinnon,” is easily the most relaxed number on the album, and certainly the first to really show any signs of the titular mellowosity. It’s a pleasant halfway point, somewhat akin to the taste of sorbet at a feast. When the tune is over, our musical palates have been refreshed, and we can go on to the next dish.
That dish is “leaving the road,” a fast-moving, almost purely jazz piece. With its quick tempo and neat piano lead, it’s one of the best tunes, musically, on the CD, yet it pales next to “Weary We’ve Been/Dancing Feet,” a tune that starts with the sort of fiddle one might expect coming from your everyday bluegrass band, and somehow works Hammond-style organs into the mix. With the mildly techno beat (think Rednex), the bodhran solo, and the fast tempo, this is the show-stopper for the second half of the album. Attempting to create a medley out of two such different pieces could well have turned out to be a mistake in the hands of a lesser group, but when the final organ-style chord comes crashing down, the urge to just shout “hallelujah” is all but irresistible. “Maids of mount cisco” tends to be the least interesting of the numbers on the CD — it’s not an inherently weak tune, by any standards. In fact, the pipes and bass are used as well here as on any track on the entire CD. However, there’s little to distinguish this track from any of the others, and coming so late in the album, it seems like nothing more than a place-filler.
However, the final piece, the title track of Mellowosity, more than makes up for it. It’s not so much a song as a musical journey, with a dreamy feel to it that just begs you to close your eyes and float with the musicians. As the synth and drums lay down a mellow (big surprise), trippy background, each instrument gets a chance to shine. It’s a perfect conclusion to the album, allowing each unique sound one more chance to shine before heading offstage.
If there’s any flaw with Mellowosity, it’s the length of the album. The liner notes claim that the album is 46 minutes long, and the clock seems to concur. However, by the time the CD has played through, it feels as if no more then fifteen, maybe twenty minutes have passed. That’s the mark of a wonderful album, and hopefully a sign of things to come for the Peatbog Faeries.