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Bargain Bin Babylon: Alan Stivell: Chemins de Terre

Bargain Bin Babylon: Alan Stivell: Chemins de Terre

Rockist bargain bin hunters willing to venture outside their comfort zone will happily eat this up.

The analog and digital worlds intersect in the wealth of popular Facebook groups dedicated to vinyl, where on a daily basis, collectors who have an already expensive habit can learn about rare and desirable albums that they may have never heard of before. Fortunately, among the limited edition private press rarities that crate diggers hope they might luck upon in a thrift shop, there are great albums that are plentiful and affordable—records you have likely seen in the bargain racks but simply ignored. Chemins de Terre, a 1973 album from Breton and Celtic musician Alan Stivell, is one of these, its musical worth far beyond the couple of bucks it will probably cost you.

Stivell is a master of the Celtic harp, but even if that sounds well outside your wheelhouse, and gives you horrific images of Renaissance fairs andRiverdance, put aside your preconceptions. It’s a risk you’ll be glad you took. For his fourth album, Stivell arranged what for the most part are traditional works, but the result is a gorgeous and occasionally psychedelic folk-rock hybrid.

The traditional “Susy Mac Guire” opens the album with perfectly lovely traditional vocals and an at first conventional arrangement. But the old-fashioned drama soon gives way to a piercing electric guitar solo from Breton musician Dan Ar Braz. His work is what makes the album at times recall the electric textures and melodies of German prog rockers Popol Vuh.

One of the album’s several smoking folk-rock instrumentals, “Ian Morrisson Reel” is credited to Peter McLeod and arranged by Stivell, but the melody recalls the old American fiddle tune “Forked Deer.” Rock audiences may not find this a promising concept—and one wonders if the many cheap copies available of the album come from listeners who sold them off after the seemingly trippy cover illustration revealed … a folk album.

But this is not the album of a reverent folk musician content to duplicate tradition. Stivell and his band create a living expansion of the music of his elders, furious fiddling driven by Michel Santangeli’s rock drums and Ar Braz’s simmering leads. “Ian Morrisson Reel” comes from sources decades older than 1974, and twice removed from its elders, the track should be terribly dated. But more than 40 years after it was released, it still sounds fresh, not folk-rock as we may think of it but a thrilling folk music that’s also exciting rock music.

The album’s pivotal track may be Stivell’s version of the frequently-performed traditional Irish folk song “She Moved Through the Fair.” Perhaps best known in a 1969 version by Fairport Convention, Stivell’s arrangement shifts in a quieter drama. Stivell’s reedy voice isn’t as pretty as Sandy Denny’s, but his tone grounds it in an airier beauty, the melody floating on beautiful harp strings that are more delicate than the slight bombast of Fairport’s version.

Discogs lists 17 different versions of the album, some retitled Celtic Rock others From Celtic Roots, and none of them US issues. In its various forms, there are more than 200 copies currently available on the collectors’ site, and you have to go through two pages of listings before you find one that costs more than $5. I bought my copy just last weekend at a record fair, and it cost me all of $2. Chemins de Terre at times suggests a strange union among members of Led Zeppelin and the Chieftains. Fans of a certain variety of folk may already know this album well. But rockist bargain bin hunters willing to venture outside their comfort zone will happily eat this up too.

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