Hymns & Harmony – Review, by Tom Lennie

MICHAEL HARCUS WITH FAMILY & FRIENDS
HYMNS & HARMONY

ISLAND IMAGE RECORDS IIR 007

Rating 8/10

Reviewed by Tom Lennie

The north isle of Westray is the spiritual jewel among Orkney’s 17 inhabited islands; its evangelical heritage dating back to the turn of the 19th century. Over 200 years later 30-something Harcus is one living evidence of that ongoing heritage.

Both his parents were involved in gospel groups and Michael’s musical tones have been familiar to Scottish gospel music lovers for many years.

Indeed ‘Hymns & Harmony’ is his sixth album recording since his debut in 1998. It differs from most of the others in that – bar one – these are not his own compositions. Instead, as its title suggests, this disc expresses the islander’s lifelong love of tried and tested gospel songs that are rich in melody, harmony and lyrical content.

Thankfully, it’s no mere regurgitation of grossly over-recorded tunes (though, despite its strong performance, I do question the need for another version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”).

These arrangements – care of Mike along with wife, Christine, and various Orkney, Shetland and mainland colleagues – come over with real musical aptitude and freshness of sound, and an uncanny depth of spirituality.

Side-by-side, we’re treated to two choice Fanny Crosby hymns, picked from that writer’s most remarkable repertoire. With most tunes, however, we’re talking about age in terms of decades rather than centuries (eg, one was penned by Dennis Jernigan, another by Bill Gaither), and in the case of “My Faith Is Strong”, it’s a totally new composition written by Christine and sung by Mairi, which sits neatly alongside these others. Indeed a further newie or two might have added to the set.

“There Is A River” gains considerably from its tender, deliberate piano-based treatment, and while I know a couple of Celtic interpretations of “My Jesus I Love Thee”, this version is easily the best – these guys’ take of it being simply sublime.

Indeed, harmonies on all tracks are quite delectable and help to make this album. “Sheltered In The Arms Of God” is another real gem, and shows off Michael’s vocals at their purest.

It’s clear that this amiable Orcadian is totally at home with this melee of country and bluegrass and it’s equally clear to the present reviewer that it’s with this format also that not only does he sound his personal best, but stands out as one of the very finest of British country/Americana-flavoured acts.

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