Friday, December 27, 2013

"Rough Guide to Ireland": Music Review

This features both big names and newcomers. From Waterford to Belfast, Kerry to Donegal, despite the recession which has closed down many pubs and forced many young people to emigrate, Irish music persists. As a symbol of defiance, celebration, and endurance, this compilation from Compass Records artists along with other releases introduces listeners to current styles.

Opening with a jaw harp and autoharp, Sligo trio The Unwanted hint at Appalachian roots, with a sly, slippery mood for “The Duke of Leinster/Gardiner’s/John Stenson’s #2”. Solas, a familiar New York City ensemble, offers a sauntering, relaxed (if still briskly sung by Máiréad Phelan) take on the traditional “A Sailor’s Life”, popularized by Judy Collins, Martin Carthy, and Fairport Convention.

The veteran Donegal band Altan reliably delivers “Tommy Potts’ Slip Jig” which complements Solas’ style. Former Solas members vocalist Karan Casey and guitarist John Doyle join for “Bay of Biscay” by the late County Clare singer Nora Cleary. It’s a poignant tale of a ghostly swain visiting his separated lover, and the spare form Casey and Doyle adapt recalls Pentangle’s somber fusion of space and tone.

From County Antrim, flute player Brendan Mulholland’s three jigs “The King of the Pipers/Behind the Haystack/The Maid on the Green” follow to lighten the mood. Jack Talty and Cormac Begley join Clare with Kerry, two lilting traditions blending for the concertina slides “Paddy Cronin’s/If I Had a Wife”.

Andy Irvine, from Sweeney’s Men and Planxty, for nearly fifty years has championed this music, more recently with Patrick Street and Mozaik. He sings a merry tale of a close encounter, “The Close Shave” by New Zealander Bob Bickerton; Irvine’s confident, cocky delivery accompanies his trademark bouzouki.

Athlone accordionist Paul Brock and Sligo fiddler Manus McGuire combine with American country musicians in their eponymous band. Their reel “Moving Cloud” steps along in lively form, with banjo too. Another type of fusion arrives from Iarla Ó Lionáird (Afro-Celt Sound System) who updates with atmospheric production and world music innovations his native Irish-language sean-nós (old style) unaccompanied vocal tradition. His “The Heart of the World” sustains this elegant, dignified blend.

Another popular collaborator, Sharon Shannon (The Waterboys) on “Neckbelly” demonstrates her button accordion skills. These slickly mingle with a hipper, MOR-type of mass appeal backbeat, not to all tastes admittedly, but like Ó Lionáird, this direction indicates the contemporary influences which—as Irvine’s bouzouki illustrates—enter into the Irish repertoire and attest to its continuing relevance.

Fidil, logically the Gaelic name for fiddle, pluck and tap their instrument. This Donegal trio (with a nephew of Altan’s singer-fiddler) features a local style of “bassing” a fiddle at a lower octave than another. This echoes the uilleann pipes of one of that region’s talented players, Joe Doherty. “Kiss the Maid Behind the Byre/Tá Do Mhargadh Déanta” show off this home-turf choice well.

Gráinne Holland, from the urban Gaeltacht of West Belfast, on “Dónal Na Gréine” pulls off a tongue-twisting tale of fittingly a feckless drunk in sean-nós (with the percussive drum, the bodhrán) impressively. It’s back to Altan’s Dermot Byrne on fiddle who with Parisian harper Floriane Blancke join for “Sore Point” which despite its name from a Chris Newman composition flows nimbly.

As well as Donegal, Clare continues to appear in the pedigree of many musicians; Hugh Healy’s concertina (a feature of that county) and uilleann piper Michael “Blackie” O’Connell offer a welcome listen to the latter instrument in the sprightly “The Hut on Staten Island”—-originally for banjo—-and “The De’il Among the Tailors” from Packie Russell, one of Clare’s Doolin trio of famous musical brothers.

Brian Finnegan’s flute and tin-whistle may be familiar from Flook; here he calls three songs after Belfast: “Back to Belfast/Anne Lacey/Eroticon VI”. Given the latter title’s hint of sexiness, they all sound jittery, excited, and impatient. Like Ó Lionáird’s approach, Flanagan’s integrates world music textures into a more accessible version of Irish music which may dismay purists but which probably broadens appeal.

Belfast continues its representation with John McSherry on pipes and whistles, Dónal O’Connor on fiddle, and Francis McIlduff on percussion, pipes, whistles. (McSherry, O’Connor, and slide guitarist Bob Brozman feature on a similarly eclectic, worthwhile bonus disc, Six Days in Down.) A trio titled At First Light, they pair their new “The Pipers of Roguery” with a tune appearing in print first in 1756, “The Hag at the Spinning Wheel”. These both mix the more traditional sounds, given the pipes, with an expanded ensemble’s guitars, for a pleasing depth. It recalls the efforts of The Bothy Band from the 1970s in this layered, sequentially structured mode.

What would a compilation be without a supergroup? Donegal’s vocalist Moya Brennan (Clannad), Altan’s fiddler-singer Máiréad Ní Mhaonaigh, and multi-talented sisters Tríona (The Bothy Band, Touchstone, Relativity, Nightnoise) and Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill (Skara Brae) combine with Manus Lunny for “Wedding Dress”. Recorded by Pentangle in 1971, this concludes this album with a chorus of voices in gentle but firm style, as listeners to Clannad and the bands in this paragraph will recognize.

Recommended for its fair nods to the various types of Irish music now in vogue, this might please experienced listeners who may (as did I) find fresh entries. Despite the promotional material touting the session and live atmosphere of such inclusions, I aver this displays better the sheen that warm production and studio time can give to gloss these tunes. It's not as rough as its title in this series lets on. So, it’s a good buy for beginners who want to explore less raw, more fluid deliveries via the Irish styles found in many releases on the Compass and related labels, which continue to provide distribution for this enjoyable music throughout the world. (PopMatters 5-9-13 + Amazon US)

1 comment:

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