Natalie MacMaster was a teenager when she emerged as one of the finest Celtic fiddlers in her native Cape Breton. Her early albums kept close to tradition, but her fourth album introduced electric keyboards and pop percussion. Her latest, "In My Hands," pushes these experiments even further with decidedly uneven results. The album opens with the title track, a distressing example of all that can go wrong in a pop crossover attempt. MacMaster's lyrics are new-age cliches that she whispers in a portentous recitation over Gordie Sampson's chilly synthesizer music. Sampson's heavy-handedness turns "Flamenco Fling" and "Space Ceilidh" into awkward genre exercises. On the other hand, several experiments with new flavors and arrangements are quite successful. MacMaster's fiddle duel with Mark O'Connor gains momentum from the Nashville rhythm section behind them, and Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon is a steadying presence on two songs. And Alison Krauss' satiny soprano perfectly matches MacMaster's fiddle on "Get Me Through December." In the end, it doesn't matter whether a traditional artist crosses over to pop, but how.
Appearing Sunday at the Birchmere.
To hear a free Sound Bite from Natalie MacMaster, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8123. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)