Francis MacDonald ~ Hamilton Mausoleum Suite

Two things should be said upfront.  This album is about Hamilton, but not about that Hamilton; and it’s about a mausoleum, but it’s not morose.  Not that any expected rapping, but the title does imply the funereal.  A further surprise is that Francis MacDonald is the drummer for Teenage Fanclub, but that this is modern composition, a broadening of expertise we last encountered with Tom Hobden & Eliot James.

So who is this Hamilton?  He’s Alexander, the tenth duke of Hamilton, whose remains were originally interred in an Egyptian sarcophagus a century and a half ago.  The beautifully reverberant building, now corpse-free, is the setting for this lovely recording for string quartet and harp, the participants representing the Scottish Festival Orchestra.

The ensemble seems enchanted by the space, alive with the possibilities of the architecture.  Ignore those track titles; this is the sweetest “Sarcophagus” you will ever hear.  On “Whispering Walls” and ensuing tracks, one can even hear the intake of breath.  The cast varies piece to piece, in four different combinations from solo harp to the full quintet, varying the timbre.  At no time does one feel the onset of melancholy or loss; instead, one feels the awe of entering a majestic building and marveling at its history.  “11th November 2016” is particularly lush, reminiscent of “West Wing” from Beauty and the Beast in subject and tone.  Could this be a hit?  Perhaps not, but the project as a whole has crossover possibility.  The fact that it was recorded in a day is stunning, but comes across in its looseness.

“The 10th Duke” changes the timbre to the celebratory; one can imagine a grand ball, with gloved hands and swirling dresses, cascading fountains and a sense of enchantment.  While it’s less than two minutes long, it’s also the album’s centerpiece and its heart, a thank you to the duke.  Thank you for your crazy burial idea.  Thank you for creating this hall of echoes.  Thank you for leaving us this legacy, so seemingly unattached to your original intentions.  Even as the pace slows anew, one is left with the memory of that brief revelry.  “Stone Lion Lullaby” is like a soft goodnight, a farewell to a session and space.

Thousands pass by the Mausoleum every day, but few see it.  MacDonald himself visited it as a child, but remembered it as an adult.  His suite brings new attention to an architectural wonder, and we’d love to imagine anniversary concerts given by the ensemble.  Which begs the question: what would Teenage Fanclub sound like with a 15-second echo?  (Richard Allen)

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