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Friday, June 10, 2011

Jim & Holly Lawrence - Caledonian Shadows

Jim & Holly Lawrence – Caledonian Shadows
2011, Jim & Holly Lawrence
Jim and Holly Lawrence are a father-daughter duo from Fredericksburg, VA who have been singing Scottish and Irish folk songs festivals, coffee houses and other shows both public and private since 1997.  Jim is a life-long musician with over four decades on stage.  Holly follow followed in her father’s footsteps.  Each holds a music degree from the University of Mary Washington and have sung with the Fredericksburg singers.  The duo recently released their third album, Caledonian Shadows, a collection of songs paying tribute to the heroes of Scottish mythology. 
Caledonian Shadows opens with “Such A Parcel Of Rogues”, a folk song based taking to task the members of Scottish Parliament who essentially placed Scotland under British rule with the Act Of Union (1707).  The lyrics are taken from a Robert Burns poem and carries with a staunch energy.  Unfortunately that energy and sense of pride aren’t well conveyed here.  Holly Lawrence gives a technically solid vocal performance but fails to invest much energy in the outcome.  “The Brownies” relies heavily on traditional instrumentation, creating a rough but beautiful background for the light, tripping vocal provided by Holly Lawrence.    “The Atholl Highlanders” pays tribute to a private army that participated in the American revolution on the art of the British and then went on to be a royal guard for the Duke of Atholl and royal visitors throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.  It is a traditional instrumental with great energy and panache that you will have a hard time sitting still for.
“Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” is another Burns poem turned into song, a lyric, highly monosyllabic piece that builds a floating sense to match the peaceful mien of the Afton itself.  Jim and Holly Lawrence and their band build around this feeling with a sweet and beautiful arrangement that opens with acoustic guitar and pipe.  The effect is soothing.  Holly Lawrence’s vocal line is solid, but finds her searching for pitch a few times.  “The Wee Wee Man” opens with a plaintive violin, joined quickly by a quietly insistent acoustic guitar.  The song is a dance, although dark in the way of dreams.  The violin work here is exquisitely light in contrast to the primal feel of the guitar line.  Holly Lawrence floats above it all, occasionally struggling with tone and pitch but generally solid.
“The Green Man Of Knowledge” is a folk-tale about a young man who heads out into the world to find himself and finds more than he bargained for.  Wandering into an enchanted world ruled by The Green Man Of Knowledge, a challenge is issued and love is gained; all is nearly lost before the young hero prevails.  There is a solid energy here, but the vocal harmonies between father and daughter simply do not work well.  There is no blend between their voices and the impression left is of two solo singers who are not listening to each other.  The instrumentation here is solid, built from violin, acoustic guitar and percussion. 
“Tam Lin” is an epic tale of the Scottish borderlands about love blooming between a maiden and a man who is essentially a prisoner of the Queen of Fairies.  Told here in seven short movements, it follows classic elements of European folk tales.  “Janet Returns” and “Redemption” stand out from the story.  “Janet Returns” has an urgent feel that will draw you into the story, with Jim Lawrence taking primary vocal duties, while “Redemption” offers Holly Lawrence’s best vocal performance of the album.  This latter tune has a haunting quality that is ancient and deep in timbre and tone.  “Praise To The Man/Scotland The Brave” is all you’d hope for, complete with bagpipes and the primitive power and majesty the tune conveys.  Caledonian Shadows closes with “Caledonia”, the prettiest and cleanest recording on the album.  Up to this point, Jim & Holly Lawrence seem to have sought a less-polished recording style, fitting, perhaps, to the traditional style of music they purvey.  Here, the Lawrences offer more of a modern folk ballad, replete with a moving cello line from Ethan Wagner.  Holly Lawrence is at her best here, staying in her comfortable range instead of venturing into the higher notes where she struggles more.
Jim and Holly Lawrence offer up a hard-hewn, traditional and reverent offering of traditional Scottish tunes on Caledonian Shadows.  While the performances don’t always sound perfect, they are entirely authentic.  It would not be surprising, were a time machine available, to transport yourself to mid 19th century Scotland and find a band with a sound very much like Jim and Holly Lawrence.  In another words, traditionalists will love this album.  Listeners who prize the sonic purity of a recording may have a hard time with this album, but it wasn’t really made for them anyway.  Caledonian Shadows seeks the cultural roots of Scottish music and lore, and it’s easy to see that Jim and Holly Lawrence have found what they were looking for.
Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)
Learn more about  Jim & Holly Lawrence at or  Caledonian Shadows is available from as a CD or  Download.  The album is also available via iTunes.

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