I've been following the career of Julie Fowlis for a few years now, and I greet each album release and gig with a certain degree of anticipation, and a fear that Ms Fowlis may slip from the undoubtedly high standards that she achieved from the outset, with her beautiful debut album, mar a tha mo chridhe, and her bolder follow-up, cuilidh. Julie's third album, Uam, puts me firmly in my place, with a slap round the face for having even the faintest of doubts! With Uam, Julie has indeed created another album of much finery, yet one that is distinct from her earlier releases. If the beauty of mar a tha mo chridhe was rooted in its fresh innocence and naivety, and the beauty of cuilidh owed much to an exuberance, buoyed by the interest generated by her debut album, then the beauty of Uam comes from a feeling of assurance; there is a sense that Julie is very much at ease here.
So, what's changed? Well, in many ways, nothing has changed. The strength of Uam still lies in the beauty of Julie's voice, and the manner with which she is able to instil in a song the subtler nuances of character and emotion, that reach out to the listener regardless of their linguistic grasp of Gaelic. One change that lends the album a certain degree of consistency, and doubtlessly adds to the feel of ease and togetherness, is the presence of the musicians that have formed Julie's touring band since the release of cuilidh: Éamon Doorley (bouzouki), Duncan Chisholm (fiddle), Tony Byrne (guitar), and Martin O'Neill (bodhrán). These guys are all fine musicians, with a dexterity and subtlety that do much to lift Julie's voice and further illuminate the songs and tunes.
Over the last few years, the success that Julie has enjoyed has allowed her the opportunity to be involved in various music projects, that have meant working with some of the folk scene's celebrated and legendary monikers, a few of whom appear on Uam. So we have the delights of Phil Cunningham, Eddi Reader, Jerry Douglas and Sharon Shannon making cameo appearances with their distinctive contributions, though with a modesty typical of Julie Fowlis, none of these contributions could be considered gratuitous, with each performer fitting seamlessly on Uam.
Of all the musicians who contribute to Uam, there is none more worthy of particular attention than Mary Smith. A generous acknowledgement of a singer that Julie much admires, Julie and Mary come together on "Hé gràdh, hó gràdh" and "Bodachan cha phòs mi." To hear two generations of singers sharing these songs is to witness the tradition being kept alive, by the sharing and passing on of songs and tunes.
It is still an arresting experience to hear Julie singing against minimal accompaniment, and there are a number of such moments to savour on Uam. "A Mhic Dhùghaill 'ic Ruairidh" finds Julie's voice pitted against the brawn of Allan MacDonald's highland bagpipes for an intense tale of love and tragedy, whilst on "Hò bha mi, hé bha mi," Julie sings together with Mary Smith and Allan MacDonald on a stark a cappella night visiting song. Songs like these lend Uam a traditional feel, whilst the punchy "Thig am bàta" allows for a more current feel, courtesy of Martin O'Neill's pulsating bodhrán rhythms.
Whether your preference is for the more traditional sounds, or the subtle contemporary leanings, one cannot deny that Julie exudes sheer class in whatever she tackles. For me, "Bothan Àirigh am Bràigh Raithneach" has to be the prime exemplar of Julie's elegance on Uam. Sung over the most delightful Phil Cunningham piano arrangement, and lifted from the conventional sounds of the tradition by the rare sound of Julie's oboe, this really is a song of outstanding allure.
The rest of the album bears the fruit of a diverse selection: a lively Gaelic/English duet with Eddi Reader on "Wind and Rain," the Breton flavours of "Rugadh mi 'n teis meadhan na mara," and a sprightly tune or two to lift the spirits.
Uam translates as 'from me' and the choosing of this name is just one small, but thoughtful reminder that Julie's music remains a personal and precious gift that she wishes to share with us all. The importance of this to Julie is further highlighted by the extensive liner notes with plentiful translations and explanations. It's unlikely that there are many better gifts that one could receive.
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