Over Christmas, I found myself stuck in front of a PBS special that involved Celtic women and a whole lot of overblown syrupy nonsense. A certain family member who went to Notre Dame seemed to especially enjoy it. I found it to be treacle of the lowest order. I'm also firmly convinced the vocalists were lip-synching. Regardless, it's yet more evidence that this Celtic revival continues to gain steam.
Here in Maine, we had evidence of that this summer with the Saltwater Celtic Music Fest, and we're lucky enough to have artists like Nicole Rabata and the Press Gang who can spin out a Celtic tune without it delving into syrupy nonsense. Recently, Matt Shipman, who's been known to try his hand at about any stringed-instrument-based musical tradition, threw his hat in the Celtic ring as well, with sophomore album Solitary Wander, a collection of 10 tracks encompassing 15 songs (medleys are popular in this kind of music), including a number of original compositions.
If you've seen Shipman play with the Stowaways or High Range or Darlin' Corey, you know of his bluegrass work, where he can hold down a tenor vocal and rip out a flatpicked solo or two, but this is a fairly separate approach, focused on fingerstyle guitar that's more about the repeating phrase than it is the melody or solo.
Plus, he plays a bouzouki on most of the tracks. And he brings in Owen Marshall for one track with the waldzither. Both are forebears of the mandolin, or maybe cousins, the former Greek and the latter German, and they lend a worldly air to Wander that's different from most roots discs released locally. In general, this isn't the rowdy pub Celtic or the sappy balladic Celtic with which you might be most familiar.
Shipman's "Portside Jig" is positively sedate, a flurry of notes that combine into something like a drone. Similarly, "Snows of November" doesn't necessarily have a signature hook or melody line you can hang your hat on, but the tune buries you like a blizzard of falling notes.
The album's heart is the "Lost Ones/Birch Grove" medley, two instrumentals that show off Shipman's range as both a writer and a player. The first is a lush lament, pretty like an old-time mourning frock. Then Shipman bangs in with a flatpick/fingerstyle combination that hints at Western influences, an aggressive and muscular display.
Best of all, everything here sounds completely organic. There are slight misplays (a next-door string brushed, a pacing wobble or two), but they only serve to highlight the high quality of the performance even more. Shipman never takes the safe route here — even if he's going it alone.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SOLITARY WANDER | Released by Matt Shipman | shippymusic.com