Like his last album, Birdstock 2001, Animal Totems by Arvel Bird is a theme album with each song representing the personality of an animal found in Native American totem poles. Backed by a dazzling array of talented musicians, Bird carves a series of musical pictures to capture nearly an hour of your imagination. Dedicated to his Shivwit Paiute ancestors, the insert contains detailed notes on each featured animal that assist the listener in interpreting each song.
Many of the twelve musical experiences are ensemble pieces with the violin playing a prominent, but not dominant, role. "Mata (Bear)" is an upbeat collection of jazzy rock melodies with a plunky electric piano rounding out the rhythms. Native flutes carry a haunting melody in "Wapiti (Elk)" and "Puma (Cougar)" is a true ensemble effort with a dramatic mixture of piano, guitar, and violin. The piece for the red-tail hawk is a nice departure in that is piano-based with the violin playing a gentle, gliding melody touched with melancholy. "Orca (Whale)" is another gem with a tranquil feeling of being underwater and looking up to see light filtering peacefully down. Heavy reverb on the violin gives the sense of whale songs in these dark waters.
In contrast to the heavily arranged group album Animal Totems is Rakish Paddy, Arvel's other release of 2002. Here small ensembles play through a variety of traditional Scottish and Irish melodies with the violin, or rather the fiddle, unabashedly taking center stage. The opening track begins with fiddle and guitar on "Rakish Paddy" but adds pipes to end on "Morrison's Jig", always a crowd pleaser. Guitar and a complicated button accordion part are added to the medley containing "The Minor Hornpipe", "Quarrelsome Piper", and "Job of Journey Work", all combining to a jolly good time. Despite it's name, "Sleepy Maggie vs. Dowsy Maggie" is an invigorating dance of energetic fiddle and frantic whistles that guarantee toe tapping. The bowed bass fiddle gives an eerie, dark edge to the sad "The Star of the County Down" while the final track, a combination of "Chief O' Niel's Favorite" and "Cherish The Ladies" is full of flash, vigor, and enough spunk to make even the stodgiest wall flower take to the dance floor. Throughout the album penny whistle, flute, bodhran, button accordion and uilleann pipes maintain the integrity of the culture and the music.
As with past Bird albums, the recordings are top-shelf and the musicianship above reproach. Fans of Celtic and world music will find much to enjoy in Rakish Paddy while followers of New Age, Native American, and inventive instrumental music would do well to stand in the shadow of Animal Totems. Visit www.singingwolfrecords.com for more information and song samples.
This review first appeared in WhatzUp, September 2002.