January 13, 2007

Reunited in Music – Unique gems from Cape Breton’s famed musical family on reunion CD

By STEPHEN COOKE Entertainment Reporter

MUSICAL REUNIONS are tricky things. They can often seem like cynical cash grabs or a misguided attempt to recapture former glories and serve only to taint a previous legacy.

I’m happy to say that there isn’t a trace of any of this about the new Rankin Family CD aptly titled Reunion (EMI Music Canada). While the disc contains four previously unreleased older recordings, including one dating back to 1990, this long-awaited disc is no odds and sods collection; their inclusion here won’t ruffle any feathers since each is a unique gem in its own right.

“Fare thee well, my own true one,” sings Raylene Rankin on Reunion’s opening track, Jimmy Rankin’s Departure Song, echoing the group’s first hit single Fare Thee Well Love. The near-quote highlights the disc’s status as a kind of career coda, and it’s probably no coincidence that it’s full of musical farewells, from Heather Rankin’s aching breakup song Nothing to Believe to the two closing songs Sunset – written and sung by the siblings’ niece Molly Rankin – and a buoyant acoustic cover of John Hiatt’s Gone.

Produced with Nashville whiz George Massenburg (a.k.a. Mr. Cookie Rankin), the new tracks avoid any obvious attempt to court country radio, although a barnburning rendition of David Francey’s Sunday Morning with cousin Mairi Rankin’s fiery fiddle breakdown seems like a good prospect. The Rankins were never comfortable with being pigeonholed, and here the focus is on making each song fit the group’s own blend of sounds, spanning stone traditional and contemporary songwriting forms with ease and grace.

The inclusion of a pair of CBC recordings by late brother John Morris Rankin on piano and fiddle – a solo Johnny Cope and the Hillsdale Medley set of jigs and reels with pianist

Tracey Dares and guitarist Dave MacIsaac – takes care of the latter part of the equation, while also ensuring Reunion’s status as a true Rankin Family project. Hearing the elder brother’s exquisite touch and depth of feeling for traditional Cape Breton music once again makes one hope that there are other buried treasures in the tape vaults that will eventually see the light of day.

At the other end of the spectrum, the bittersweet Sunset by John Morris’s 20-year-old daughter Molly shows influences like Lucinda Williams and Sarah Harmer, with a bracing and honest voice that shows more than just genes at work. It’s a strong indication that when she strikes out on her own she’ll be able to meet the great expectations.

Other tracks offer writing that matches the best of the Rankins’ original run, including Jimmy’s collaboration with former band member Gordie Sampson on Nothing Like an Ocean. The song’s knowing description of landlocked homesickness will ring true for many listeners who find themselves far from home, while Raylene’s co-write with Susan Crowe, Sparrow, is an evocative and natural ode with spare production and haunting harmonies.

While Cookie has previously proved her songwriting mettle on songs like Endless Season’s The River, she has no compositions on Reunion. She does however get to perform the record’s dramatic centrepiece, a full-blooded The Way I Feel by Gordon Lightfoot that touches on the Canadian bard’s nod to British folk roots while still sounding sweet and soulful in a modern way.

The other two older recordings date back to 1997, but are more than mere outtakes. Jimmy delivers a dark, bare-bones blues on Our Time Is Tonight, with the late Kevin MacMichael providing some stinging acoustic guitar licks and Heather’s spectral Hush the Waves is a traditional Celtic lullaby sung a capella that works better here than it might have on the Rankins’ previous swan song, Uprooted.

On Tuesday, it will be seven years since the highway death of John Morris seemingly put an end to the possibility of a new Rankin Family record, a sad fact that most fans had come to accept. But Reunion shows that some bonds are too strong to be completely rent asunder, while the presence of his fiddle and piano playing ensures that the disc serves as a fitting tribute to the important East Coast musical achievements of the Rankins as well as an anticipatory signpost for one last voyage around the nation’s concert venues.


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