Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Solas "The Turning Tide": Music Review

This veteran Irish American band merges traditional with folk tunes. Fourteen years on, they provide consistent, accessible interpretations of standards, along with original songs in the Irish style, and on this new CD, covers of Bruce Springsteen, Richard Thompson, Josh Ritter, and Karen Polwart.

This broad approach places their style at the middle of the road. Séamus Egan favors in his multi-instrumental leadership a clean, lush, friendly sound. Little of the darker, somber qualities shroud this music for long. Although their covers are, respectively for the artists above, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "The Poor Ditching Boy," "A Girl in the War," and "Sorry," these socially aware lyrical themes seem novel as conveyed through the soft vocals of recent recruit Máiread Phelan.

Phelan's breathy, whispery delivery expressing Tom Joad's "a hole in the belly, a gun in my hand" forces listeners to reconsider how we react to such a violent tale of revenge in the name of justice. She does not switch the gender of Thompson's lament, and hearing "she cut me through to my bones" likewise catches the audience off-guard. While I am not sure if this was the intended effect of singer matched with these songs, it makes for a more unexpected encounter with venerable folk themes of discontent. Softening their punch, it freshens their sting.

Session musicians on acoustic and electric bass and on drums move some songs towards a mainstream, studio-friendly ambiance. They smooth off the rough edges other Irish bands keep, and this may please or displease aficionados of this genre. Winifred Horan's fiddle, Mick McAuley's accordion and concertina, Éamon McElholm's guitar and keyboards provide modest rather than bold backing on many tunes. They create an ambiance of contentment despite the discontent sung about in the cover songs.

"A Sailor's Life," far shorter than Thompson's former bandmates in Fairport Convention had adapted, waltzes and reels, and the gentle closing guitar-based "A Tune for Roan" show other directions for the band, closer to their previous albums. Solas, whose name means "light" in Irish, tends towards sunniness. Despite the waves that grace the inside folds of this compact disc's presentation, the musical forecast again proves to be brighter. (Posted 5-12-10 to Amazon US and featured 5-26-10 on Pop Matters.)

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