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Mike Wilson
, www.folking.com

Rachel’s impressive debut album, Hubcaps & Potholes, explored the harp as a solo instrument, in a collection that showcased the instrument’s versatility, from its poised and delicate beauty, through to its enigmatic, expansive flourishes. For her second album, The Lucky Smile, Rachel showcases the harp, or clarsach as it is also known in her native Scotland, within a band setting, further considering the appeal and adaptability that this beautiful instrument can hold.

There are some very obvious musicians on the folk scene that Rachel could easily have called upon to provide accompaniment on The Lucky Smile, but it is testament to her musical inquisitiveness and ingenuity, that Rachel chose to seek some less obvious companions to work with on this project. Infiltrating the Scottish jazz scene, Rachel has commandeered some of Scotland’s most lucid and innovative musicians — Paul Tracey on guitar, Andy Sharkey on double bass, and Scott MacKay on drums. Added to this mix is Paul Jennings, one of Scotland’s foremost percussionists, whose supple rhythms add to the energy of the whole ensemble. To the musically attuned, just the thought of this combination is enticing — when you listen to The Lucky Smile, the reality is absolutely enthralling.

Many of the compositions here are Rachel’s own work, alongside a few traditional tunes and compositions by fellow musicians. The albums begins with the ensemble in full swing on the set “Back Home,” comprising two compositions by Gordon Gunn and Karen Tweed, sandwiching the traditional tune, “Flora Macdonald’s.” Andy Sharkey’s languid double bass provides much depth, whilst Paul Tracey’s guitar adds supple textures. Rachel’s harp races away frivolously, leaving a trail of the most glorious, colourful notes, whilst the drums of Scott Mackay attempts to tame the rhythm.

Even when flying solo on the splendid slow air, “Blue Hills Of Antrim,” Rachel delivers the most heartbreaking and spellbinding performance, harnessing the most subtle and expressive aspects of her harp, in an arrangement where the carefully measured silences contribute to the intensity just as much as each resolutely plucked string. With “I Lost My Harp In Barcelona,” Rachel well and truly soaks up the Spanish ambience — you can almost smell the paella and taste the sangria, with the cajon of Paul Jennings instilling an exotic rhythm.

A couple of tracks feature guest singer, Joy Dunlop, who contributes her crystalline Gaelic vocals, sounding all the more classy when delivered over Rachel’s sublime, rippling harp. “A Fhleasgaich Oig As Ceanalta” is one of the most beautiful Gaelic love songs you will hear, sung by Joy with a palpable longing, whilst Rachel’s harp accentuates the drama. The harmonium of Angus Lyon gives a rounded swell to underpin the arrangement, and Paul Jennings’ percussion lends contemporary spirit.

Elsewhere, one can find slow reels, marches and jigs, all fleshed out by the jazz sensibilities of the accompanying musicians. It’s this subtle fusion of genre flavours that makes The Lucky Smile so appealing. You don’t need to be a fervent admirer of traditional music to ‘get’ this — it’s brimming with spirit and vitality, with a unique and undeniable appeal. It would be easy to lose yourself in each and every track on The Lucky Smile. It would be easy for me to wax lyrical about each and every note, describing the subtle nuances and the mesmeric arrangements… but I’ve probably said enough now. You really should buy yourself a copy of this album and get drunk on its intoxicating charms
Mike Wilson
, www.folking.com