“Stem The Tide” is a geography lesson, history lesson and a lesson in political science rolled into one and given a really good shake. Add some bitterness, anger and unrestrained passion and you’ve got an album with the potential to really explode into life and it does.
The Paul McKenna Band are fulfilling the prophecies that were written when they released their debut album, a few short years ago. They’ve chosen an exceptional set of songs and delivered on everyone, even going as far as to completely redefine a few.
“Silent Majority” being a good case in point, written by friend and early mentor, Lionel McClelland, the song is a real rant against the lack of action by the so called silent majority, the people oft talked about, but never able to be quoted, those that let events spiral until it’s too late to do anything about it. The people in whose name things end up happening. You can almost feel the contempt falling from McKenna as he delivers the song.
Similarly with his own song, “Dreams Of Darien” a song about a particularly inglorious part of Scotland’s past and its search for a Utopia in what is now Panama, which resulted in a large number of people being sold out by bankers and politicians. It was an episode of Scot’s history I was only vaguely aware of. Not only has it brought the era into focus, it manages to give it a modern context and, more importantly, does it in an entertaining way, making you more inclined to give it a hearing.
As you would expect with a Paul McKenna band album, it’s not just the songs, it’s the musicianship. Paul McKenna has a voice that many would kill for, a delicate lilt that gives it something really distinctive, but by the time you add in the playing of Ruairidh McMillan, Ewan Baird, Sean Gray and David McNee you would be looking at green eyed jealousy giving way to wholesale slaughter.
It’s the quality of that playing that helps the songs really stand out. This is as much an album about people and the human condition as it is anything else. You can hear the pride in human spirit as much as the grief for when it’s lacking. The sense of loss that people feel when loved ones are far away and the joy expressed when they return.
That emotive playing somehow manages to step up another gear for the album’s final track, “Lionel’s Farewell” at the beginning you can almost feel the tears falling from the instruments, before the song turns into a celebration of the joy of his life.
From the unaccompanied vocal to the instrumental, the blending of the two, the arrangements, Brian McNeill’s production, “Stem The Tide” is an album of rich sounds and songs from beginning to end.
It’s an album that draws on an extensive history of Scottish music and adds to it. Whilst the likes of the Battlefield Band, Planxty and Boys Of The Lough defined Celtic music for the last third of the 20th century, it will be the likes of Bodega, Breabach and the Paul McKenna Band that will end up defining it for the first third of the 21st one.