At the start of 2021, sea shanty TikTok was a thing. Of course, I had to reply, “I’m more of a waulking songs / mouth music person myself.”
In the mid-90s, a friend of mine and I got heavily into Celtic music. Enya, of course, had to go sing in Irish Gaelic, which led to Clannad, which led to the Shanachie label, which led to Talitha MacKenzie.
Tower Records featured her album Solas on a listening station, and sampling the first two tracks of the album got me hooked. I played the album just about nonstop on my DiscMan throughout 1994. Further research led down the rabbit hole of Scottish music, with its shanties, waulking songs and mouth music.
And also the band, Mouth Music.
Mackenzie was original member of the duo, before creative difference led to a split which resulted in Solas. A pair of songs MacKenzie recorded on Solas also appear on Mouth Music’s self-titled debut. I bought it thinking the albums would sound similar.
The only thread between the two is MacKenzie’s voice. Otherwise, they occupy distinct sonic territory.
Mouth Music is sparse compared to Solas and cosmopolitan in ways Solas is not. (It works the other way around — Solas is cosmopolitan in ways Mouth Music is not.)
With Solas, MacKenzie placed traditional music squarely in a contemporary context. Mouth Music straddled the line a bit more, letting the source material have more of a spotlight before being blurred in a cauldron of effects.
I can’t say I was a fan of the approach.
MacKenzie’s version of “Seinn O” dove straight for the dance floor, where the Mouth Music version went for more of an art school vibe. The Mouth Music version of “Chì mi na mórbheanna” went for an ethereal industrial sound, where the Solas version kept to its folk roots.
Solas felt joyous, where Mouth Music was much more cerebral. I chose MacKenzie and eventually sold Mouth Music for cash.
On my frequent visits to the thrift shop, I would see Mouth Music albums pass through the shelves with enough regularity that I knew I could re-acquire the album at a bargain. Spotting it in the $0.10 bin provided the right opportunity.
I’m not as severe on the album now. When I listened to Mouth Music the first time around, I cast it in context of another. Enough time has passed that I can extricate the two and appreciate both approaches.