Jayme Lynn Blaschke penned the review.
Smithfield Fair’s never been a band that over-produces its work. Sure, they go in for clever arrangements now and again, but for the most part their previous discs have featured an honest, workmanlike approach to the music. On The Winter Kirk, a collection of sacred and Scottish seasonal songs, they go even beyond that and strip all the tracks down the their barest, rawest essentials. For the most part, it works fairly well.
Don’t expect non-stop jingle bells and a happy brass section blowing away. What Smithfield Fair instead offers up are tracks built around vocals. Particularly striking are “The Lord’s My Shepherd” and “The Lord’s Prayer/What Child is This?” along with Dudley-Brian Smith’s recitation of the respective biblical passages in a gruff Scottish brogue prior to the beginning of the song. It simply feels like medieval Scotland. The contrast with Jan Smith’s gentle, sweeping vocals works very well even if it is jarring the first time it pounces on the listener.
Another unexpected touch, and one I found quite pleasant, was the introduction of the Smiths’ daughter, Margaret Claire, singing lead vocals on “Taladh Chriosta/The Christ Child’s Lullaby,” “We Three Kings” and “Silent Night.” Her voice is sweet and clean, with an honest, unpretentious quality to it, and reminded me strongly of Frances Cunningham’s work with the now-defunct SixMileBridge. Margaret Claire recorded these two songs at ages 8 and 10, and one can only hope she makes more appearances on future Smithfield Fair efforts as her voice grows and matures.
“The Apple Tree/Midwinter Awakening” was another unexpected delight. A traditional Scottish folk song, “The Apple Tree” at first seems an odd symbol to build a religious-themed song around, but it quickly grows on you. There’s a steady, bright bit of acoustic guitar at work here, and a judicious use of accordion that accents the piece just right. Dudley-Brian and Jan’s harmonies are quite nice, making this odd little song stand out. At the other end of the spectrum, a familiar seasonal chestnut, “Deck the Halls,” also manages to weave an infectious spell over the listener, despite its over familiarity. The mandolin-accordian arrangement, tinged with the barest amount of bells, conspires for a sly, jaunty piece. You literally hear the smirk on the singers’ faces as they traipse across the lyrics. This is the only selection that sounds remotely like popular modern Christmas music, but the simple and straightforward instrumentation avoids an unfortunate detour into saccharine territory. “God of Grace and God of Glory” features a simple arrangement of guitar and bodhran, but the vocal harmonies and interplay are very nice.
“Lord of the Highlands” and “Meet It Were to Praise Him” are original Dudley-Brian compositions, who’s song writing skills continue impress. The guitar work on “Highlands” is smooth and compact, powering the melody along as Dudley-Brian’s vocals evoke images of soaring across a crisp Scottish sky as the hills and mountains roll by below. I like music that can conjure vivid visual pictures beyond the lyrics, and Dudley-Brian has proven he can accomplish this time and again. “Meet It Were to Praise Him” proves a perfect vehicle for Jan’s dark velvet voice, and the subject matter, that of a leper woman miraculously healed in the 15th Century, is obviously not a field that has been over-grazed. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but between the accordion, mandolin and guitar interplay, along with Frang Bladen’s mood setting bodhran work, there is a distinct Peter Gabriel vibe running through this piece which is both eerie and invigorating at the same time. Very nice.
The Winter Kirk is not a perfect album by any means. The selections tend toward the somber a bit too much, and on more than one occasion the more obscure traditional selections tend to blend together, which is a shame, since I’m a big fan of obscure stuff I’ve never heard before. The disc concludes with a bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace” which is well done, but nothing that hasn’t been heard a million times before. Overall, though, The Winter Kirk is an interesting, engaging album that might be just the ticket for someone in search of Christmas/seasonal music that’s off the beaten track.
(Stevenson Productions, 2001)