Shine: Sugarcane (2001)

This is one of my “rummaging the vault” pieces where I either discover or return to an older release.

Shine was (I presume it’s “was” rather than “is” but please correct me if I’m wrong) a trio of three remarkable Scottish musicians: Corrina Hewat, Alyth McCormack and Mary Macmaster. As a band, they were 3 x vocals and 2 x electroharp – a fairly unique combination.

“Shine” as their band name is a play on words, as the Gaelic word for singing, “seinn”, is pronounced almost exactly like “shine”. And, of course, with the vocal power and talent of all three, their only full length album Sugarcane is dominated by singing, with the electroharps bringing in sounds both very old and very modern at the same time.

Listening to Sugarcane now, 22 years after its release, it sounds timeless. The three ladies had developed a very original sound and approach, landing the music in a grey zone between folk, alternative, art pop and even something a bit more experimental. It’s an ambitious effort and not one to digest quickly.

Some of the tunes are not too far removed from a traditional approach but, for example, Alasdair Òg, a trad tune, gets pretty complex and modern vocal harmonies. The title tune by Ali McInnes comes across as an almost ambient exercise with the tonal figures are repeated beneath the melody throughout the song. And that old Sting war horse, Fields of Gold, would be unrecognizable if it were not for the lyrics.

At its most approachable, as in the songs Seinn (trad) and Small Wars (my definite favorite track here, by the late Rick Taylor), Sugarcane is an appealing and refreshing experience. When it leans toward the artsy side, it can be tough going, also because the vocals and harps as the only arsenal used on the album, form a limited spectrum of sounds and dynamics, even with the brilliant talents of all three musicians.

So, I found this very interesting and different and I admire the ambition. But I did feel a bit like an outsider for most of the time, with the exception of Small Wars, a song I thought would also have been perfect for someone like Todd Rundgren whose pop/soul stylings would have fitted the song brilliantly.

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