Loreena McKennitt: The Wind That Shakes The Barley

Loreena McKennitt’s albums are often unfairly relegated to the “New Age” category alongside Irish artists like Enya and Clannad. Yet the truth is that McKennitt is Canadian and her style is an enchanting brand of ambient, multi-cultural folk music. With her latest release, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Loreena returns to the traditional Irish and Scottish music that was the halmark of her early career. The album finds cellist and kindred musical spirit Caroline Lavelle and several other skilled guest musicians accompanying Loreena’s singular voice on timeless, traditional Celtic classics.

a bullet pierced my true love’s side
in life’s young spring so early
and on my breast in blood she died
while soft winds shook the barley

The album begins with a stunner. Loreena’s robust and inflective voice is perfectly suited to the jaunty traditional tune “As I Roved Out.”

The entire album is brimming with a heady mix of Celtic and folk instrumentation: from the deep thump of bodhrán merrily mingling with Caroline Lavelle’s cello in the opener and the lilting dance of Celtic bouzouki, bells, whistles, Uilleann pipes and button accordion in the quintessential Irish tune “The Star of County Down” to Loreena’s delicate harp strum melting with mandolin in the acoustic melody “On a Bright May Morning.”

Loreena’s exploration of the deeper, more somber tone of her lower register enhances the old-fashioned style of the album, calling to mind Van Morrison’s collaboration with The Chieftains. The instrumental “Brian Boru’s March” floats with the gentle lark call of a Medieval waltz.

Loreena’s supernatural soprano is on gorgeous display in “Down by the Sally Gardens,” a song with words by W.B. Yeats. The exquisite ballad is the standout in this extraordinary collection and Loreena’s voice has never sounded more lovely.

While Dead Can Dance’s chilling rendition of “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” remains the definitive version of the mournful Irish ballad, Loreena’s emotive and sparse title track cover is a very close second.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley is Loreena McKennitt’s most beautiful and substantial work since 1991’s The Visit.

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