Magna Carta Records, 1998
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/12/1998
Though I don't listen to it as much as I'd like to, I love Irish and Celtic music. The folkiness of the melodies, the lightness of the songs (even if the lyrics are singing about something dark), the calm-to-frantic strumming of the mandolins and bowing of the fiddles - what's not to love about it?
Lief Sorbye and Michael Mullen, two-fifths of the band Tempest, branched out to record as Caliban, promoting a music that is not as much Irish as it is Celtic. (Funny to note that neither member is from the auld sod; Sorbye is from Norway, and Mullen is from... Fresno. Go figure.) Their self-titled debut features some music that makes you want to get up and dance a drunken jig, but it also makes you long for the backing of a full band.
Make no mistake, Sorbye and Mullen are incredibly capable musicians. Sorbye switches off on octave-mandolin, mandolin, bodhran and (though I admit I couldn't hear it) harmonica, and both men are very good singers. But when you hear Robert Barry lend his talents on bass and keyboards, you almost wish that Caliban's sound was a bit fuller. Octave-mandolin and fiddle are fine, but I do miss a touch of drums and tin whistle - then again, this is all a matter of taste, and doesn't distract from the music itself.
Both Sorbye and Mullen also show their songwriting talents, though they stick to composing music to traditional lyric sets - not that this is a bad thing, mind you. I have yet to hear a variation on the "John Barleycorn" theme that I haven't liked, and "Bold John Barleycorn" is as good as any I've heard. Ironically, the instrumentals are often the most powerful selections on Caliban; the four-reel "Tipsy Sailor" starts off slowly, but works itself into a glorious frenzy - you can almost see the subject in question go from slowly staggering away from a bar to ending up dancing madly in the middle of the saloon.
This is not to say that the songs with vocals are weak - though one wonders what possessed Caliban to select a Richard Thompson song ("Beeswing") to cover. "What Put The Blood?" is done well a capella, while "The Journeyman" is an interesting and charming selection. The highlight is a Norweigan folk song, "Jeg Lagde Meg Så Silde," which I would have assumed was in Gaelic had I not read the liner notes.
So with all the words of praise for Caliban, could there be any negative points? In one sense, I do wish that this disc had been a little more - how can I word it? - hard-core Celtic. Despite the reliance on traditional songs and instruments, there still is a sense of laid-back California style to this disc that doesn't always feel natural. Maybe fleshing out the sound a bit with other instruments would have helped this, I don't know. Besides that, it occasionally is easy to lose your focus when you're listening to this disc - it almost beckons you to allow it to play in the background. I'm not sure I like that; I prefer to have what I listen to up front requiring at least partial concentration. Maybe it's that Caliban is hypnotic in a sense.
By no means is Caliban a bad disc; for fans of Celtic music, this will provide great enjoyment, and I believe that Sorbye and Mullen will only continue to get better at their craft. But is it wrong to suggest that this album could have been a little more Celtic?