1/  The Wayfaring Stranger - Jerry O'Sullivan                                2.49
  2/  The Stride Set (Reels) - Solas                                           6.45
  3/  The Labouring Man's Daughter - Karan Casey                               5.07
  4/  We Dreamed Our Dreams - Cathie Ryan                                      0.47
  5/  Wendel's Wedding - Jerry O'Sullivan                                      3.15
  6/  The Gray Selchie - Solas                                                 2.12
  7/  Dark Green - Bill Laswell                                                3.59
  8/  Wind Chimes and Nursery Rhymes - Jerry O'Sullivan                        2.49
  9/  One, I Love - Karan Casey                                                4.43
  10/ La Bruxa - Solas                                                         4.34
  11/ The Hare In the Heather - Matt Molloy                                    2.32
  12/ Coaineadh Na Dtri Muire (Lament of the Three Marys) - Cathie Ryan        3.37
  13/ Slieve Russell, Jimmy Wards J.G. - Matt Molloy                           2.00
  14/ The Beauty Spot (Reels) - Solas                                          4.19

          Created at Orange Music, West Orange, New Jersey
          Engineering: Robert Musso
          Production and Mix Translation: Bill Laswell
          Writing/Axiom: Bill Murphy
          Design/Material Inc.: John Brown

          2000 - Shanachie (USA), SHA 78035 (CD)


Producer and musician Bill Laswell has built an artful, at times infamous name for himself by re-imagining the back catalogs of major artists (Bob Marley, Miles Davis) and by marrying traditional song forms with modern beats and dub grooves (like last year's Imaginary Cuba). Above all else is Laswell's trademark sound: deep, throbbing bass lines, tablas and blunt beats. It is so thoroughly overused that everything he touches inevitably turns into himself. Emerald Aether: Shape Shifting is a "reconstruction of Irish music" that features songs by Jerry O' Sullivan, Solas, Karan Casey, Matt Molloy and a few original Laswell segues. O' Sullivan's flute and bagpipe instrumental "Wendel's Wedding" is left almost entirely intact, with the exception of a little ambient pixie dust. "The Labouring Man's Daughter" by vocalist Karan Casey receives the full Laswell treatment; turntable scratches, pitch bends, hip-hop beats, and echo-drenched vocals; think Sinead O' Connor's "I Am Stretched Out On Your Grave."

Reconstructions like Matt Molloy's "The Hare in the Heather" seamlessly blend drum and bass beats with an instrumental flute solo that alluringly slides between the foreground and background, masked only by light clouds of synth and reverb. But it's one bright star in a sea of emptiness as Laswell all too often hangs shiny tinsel on other artists' fully developed songs and - presto! - calls them his own. As a producer, Laswell truly shines when he breaks a song's architecture down to brick and mortar and starts anew. It is a talent he demonstrated favorably on Imaginary Cuba, but that is lacking too often on Emerald Aether to warrant prolonged interest.

Todd Dominey (courtesy of the Roots World website)


Last year, Bill Laswell completed work on his project of "reconstructing" a number of works in the traditional Celtic vein. It's probably safe to say that most listeners would prefer he'd have kept at the revisions a bit longer. Or released it as a 20-minute EP. Or not released it at all.

Emerald Aether: Shape Shifting is a befuddling album, consisting mostly of irrelevant-to-obtrusive reconstructions of decent-to-good source material. Viewed solely as an audio experience, the album isn't without some merit (and hence the relatively high star ratings). Seen as a Bill Laswell project, it comes off as remarkably hollow. In sum, it's a set of decent music that lacks any good reason for existing - a project as pointless as it is pleasant to hear. Considering the results, one can only wonder why Laswell bothered with the project in the first place.

A number of the songs are left in a basically ambient setting. The album begins and ends with pleasant, evocative works performed on traditional pipe instruments: "The Wayfaring Stranger" is a decent mood piece, and "The Beauty Spot (Reels)" features some skilled playing in a semi-inspired setting. "We Dreamed Our Dreams" is a very brief (and fairly forgettable) guitar piece, while "Wendel's Wedding" has some gorgeous plucked guitar to its credit. "Wind Chimes And Nursery Rhymes" is a nice, reflective number. "La Bruxa" is perhaps the highlight of the release, with a combination of guitar and accordion that's much better than any bare-bones description would imply. "Slieve Russell, Jimmy Wards J.G.", meanwhile, is something of a jig piece.

There's nothing terribly wrong with any of these tracks -- the only problem is that Laswell's own contributions are mostly limited to creating some superfluous keyboard noises in the background. It's nice to hear such tunes in the light of Laswell's high-quality production, I suppose, but one can't escape the conclusion that Bill isn't really adding very much to them.


Some other tracks on the album feature electronic dance-beats. Listening to these tracks, one might easily envision two parallel streams, flowing through the same general vicinity without ever coming together. The actual beats often sound like those of the Future Sound of London or (to a lesser extent) The Orb. But whereas those bands would probably have combined the two forms in a fairly interesting way, Laswell simply adds his collection of beats to the source material. It's a bit disconcerting at times, to put it mildly. One might expect this sort of ramshackle planning from other artists, but not from a man who's based his career on his production skills.

That said, the tracks in question aren't total disasters. "The Stride Set" shows some evidence of having heard Ashley MacIsaac's work, and combines violin and banjo passages in a fairly interesting way. With better editing, this could have been something truly special. "The Labouring Man's Daughter" has a very similar beat structure to FSOL's "Far Out Sound Of Lung", but comes off as a clumsy derivative of that band's style -- the beats are just THERE, not really interacting with the (admittedly enjoyable) source track. "The Hare In The Heather" is much the same, and Laswell's own "Dark Green" has a few fade-in tricks and little else to its credit.

Three tracks merit some special attention. "The Gray Selchie" basically succeeds as a Laswellian construction piece, with various electronic devices intermingling with a lead guitar line. Had this been a prototype for the entire album, it probably would've been a more innovative venture. "One, I Love" actually succeeds by virtue of the stark contrast between Laswell's beats and Casey's voice ... at first; by the end of the track, though, it just seems a bit amateurish(!). Finally, "Coaineadh Na Dtri Muire" features some incredible singing over a sparse background. The only problem is that there's no need for a Enya derivative when the real thing is just as easily available.

Perhaps this project was cursed from the fact that it was recorded in a place called West Orange(!), New Jersey. Or perhaps it was just a bad idea from the beginning. One way or the other, there's no need to encourage further works of this sort.

If you're a hardcore fan of the source material, you might find this entertaining. Otherwise, don't bother.

The Christopher Currie (courtesy of the Tentative Reviews website)