Sunday, December 29, 2013

Altan: "Gleann Nimhe/ The Poison Glen": Music Review

This venerable band from Donegal presents its newest recording. Shifting somewhat away from its Narada-label leanings of a decade back into New Age-inflected stylings, this Compass Records release offers a more traditional delivery of tunes, reliable in their familiar conjuring of their Northwestern Irish heritage. At its best, this recalls their standout albums originally released in America on the Green Linnet label.

This is also the first of their many albums since they began around thirty years ago to feature an Irish-language title. It's taken from a place near vocalist-fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh's home. She explains it as a mistranslation of "heavenly" glen, in fact, but that so many legends have sprung up to account for its more devilish connotation that it's been kept in its darker emanation. The band is photographed by Edain O'Donnell, or Photoshopped, among the technicolor of that glen, in a nod to the imagination which improves upon nature. This sly nod to enchantment and misdirection in the singer's native tongue represents a clever turn for this ensemble back to the roots music it plays best.

As the first studio album in seven years (I reviewed their collaboration with the RTÉ orchestra celebrating the band's twenty-fifth anniversary for PopMatters two years ago), this features skilled players. Ciaran Tourish supports on fiddle and whistle, Dermot Byrne on accordion, Mark Kelly on guitar and bouzouki, Ciarán Curran on bouzouki and mandolin, and Dáithí Sproule on guitar and vocals. Jim Higgins guests with percussion that shakes up the rhythm now and then, as on the ballad "The Lily of the West". The line-up may obscure the fact that Donegal's known for fiddlers. Tourish and Ní Mhaonaigh compliment each other with the sprightly, fluid sound of their home turf. Stringed instruments back up the fiddling with propulsive energy and shifting melodies that emerge handsomely in this production.

Reels and jigs alternate, as on all their albums and performances, with songs. Ní Mhaonaigh's confident, yet gentle voice commands attention. "An Ghealóg" laments the death of a bunting on a winter's night; I believe (given all I have is a downloaded file) that Harry Bradley's flute is featured here to deepen the sad mood. The massed backing vocals hint back to fellow Donegal natives Clannad and Enya's approach, but these touches enter sensitively and sparingly.

The next song "Caitlín Triall" narrates an all-too-often tale of unrequited love; while again the vocal arrangement recalls their top-charting Donegal neighbors, Altan prefers to base its material upon simpler studio settings. Instrumental tracks do this efficiently, as on "Eddie Curran's Monaghan Twig" or "The Lancer's Jig" imitating their concert medleys which allow the band to show off its balance of lushness with drive.

The last five tracks, whether instrumentals or songs, slow down the pace markedly. The concentration of a more burnished, less frenetic set into the final third of the album may indicate the band's wish to return to the composed, dignified feel of its Narada-label recordings, but I prefer the entries which move the band into overdrive in playing, as well as those vocal opportunities allowing Ní Mhaonaigh to display her sensitive lyrical delivery within the deftly arranged tunes that show off Altan at its finest as Ireland's leading interpreters of its musical tradition. (Amazon US 3-5-12; PopMatters 4-23-12)

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