CD Reviews

Runaway Sunday, Altan, 14 Tracks 46 min 02

There comes a time for everyone when you realise that some day, you'll be dead and the world will still go on: it's probably the onset of middle age, a defining moment. It's how you react that counts. For Altan, it has arrived with this lovely collection, full of a reflective gentleness and simplicity.

Their inspiring figure is the great John Doherty: there are five reels of his in this collection, plus the song A Moment in Time, inspired by a photo of him. There's an awareness of handing on the tradition despite the frailty of human existence, like an autumn elegy. The reel playing is light, deft and very musicianly: indeed, by Donegal standards it's rather slow, sinewy and confident, but all the better for it, and mazurka playing is a model. It has a special sprung lift in it which is the token of real musical intelligence. The singing of Mairéad ní Mhaonaigh has a deep directness, especially in the lament Cití Ní Eadhra, and the final track, Time has Passed, has the words 'Mo ghrá go deo 'fhad a bhas mó beo' (my love forever as long as I live) and ending 'I must carry on'. Such philosophical acceptance isn't the stuff of glitz, but when it's expressed as well as this, it's rarer than gold. There's no direct mention on the album that Mairéad's husband, Frankie Kennedy, is dead three years this September, but this is a most dignified and poetic tribute, understated and totally sincere. It also marks a growth in humanity and musical understanding of a very fine group.

One crib, and it's a big one, has nothing to do with the music. It's the programme booklet. Certainly full marks for including Francie Mooney's translations of the Gaelic songs, but the only place where there is a list of the playing order of the tunes is on the disc itself. That's no use to a radio producer who wants to know the title and timing of each track. When you have guest artists of the stature of Donal Lunny, Steve Cooney and Matt Molloy, you want to be able to confirm what tracks they're playing on. It's obvious that Matt is on the reel Flood in the Holm, and there's a didgerídoo, unmistakably Steve, on Gleanntáin Glass Ghaoth Dobhair, but where else are they? With a group of this stature, it shouldn't militate against getting air-play. I certainly hope it doesn't. This is a collection whose full value will grow with the passing years: Altan should be very proud. JB

Dreaming, Phil Campbell, Spring Records

Dreaming, the latest offering from Northern Irish singer Phil Campbell is thoroughly polished and professional, but suffers from a serious lack of variety. The quality of the individual songs and performances is never in question, but they all tend towards ballads on a tempo scale from slow to nearly stop. The sole exception is the light, jazzy interpretation of When Love Says Goodnight, and even here the band doesn't break into a sweat. A proponderance of slow material is a common failing on popular albums such as this, however, perhaps it is simply a case of catering for an existing band-waggon.

Criticism aside, there is much to admire here, Campbell has a fine voice and sings with a combination of power and detachment reminiscent of Mary Black. The highlight of the album comes with her interpretation of Van Morrison's The Way Young Lovers Do. It must be intimidating for any artist to cover material that Morrison himself presented so definitively on Astral Weeks. Campbell is confident enough to make the song her own, and gives it a sparse, assured interpretation. Otherhighlights include two Julie Matthews' songs Blue Songs on a Red Guitar and Blue Old Saturday Night and Campbell's own Dreaming.

The only song to fall utterly flat is I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free, primarily because of an incredibly tacky keyboard accompaniment. This is the exception. As a rule her backing musicians are very sympathetic and understated. To name but two, Ted Ponsonby provides excellent guitar, while the ubiquitous James Blennerhassett underpins everything with his silky bass-lines. All in all there's plenty to enjoy here. AM

Kevauna, The Kavanaughs with Jack Renard, 15 tracks, 67 minutes 02.

How do Americans make sense of their Irishness at a distance of a few thousands miles and a couple of generations? Not always too well, but the present album is one of the smoothest transatlantic crossings you could hear. I'm not sure if a "u" in Kavanaugh is the same as the second "e" in Kelley, i.e. a sign of pre-Famine emigration: here we have six Kavanaughs from two generations, plus a guest, Jack Renard, who have been following Irish music since 1975 via cousins in Galway. As the notes say, Celts remain Celts over great distances spanning millennia. They do however, lose their language, and here they respond to it by new words for classic songs like Casadh an tSúgáin and Conlach Glas an Fhomhair, and settings of the Yeats poem When you are old and grey.

The result is like a Celtic Carpenters, fine vocal blends and professional arranging in a laid- back format, with the backing mainly guitar, mandolin and keyboards. John Kavanaugh just happens to be a Jesuit priest based at St. Louis University, and there is an academic poise and orderliness in the approach, plus some satire as in the Spinning Wheel (definitely not the Delia Murphy version). Not all tracks are of the same quality, but Jenny K in particular has a fine voice, and the whole production shows a great appreciation of the music in the genes. JB

The Celtic Poets, Jah Wobble's Invaders of the Heart

The gravel voice of Ronnie Drew meets reggae bass-man Jah Wobble, backed by the French bagpipes of Jean Pierre Rawle. Jim Kelly has to pinch himself, it's music Jim, but not as we know it. Ronnie Drew fans, and there are still a lot of them out there, will be puzzled to say the least, at this latest offering from the bearded, ballad singing institution that led the Dubliners to international acclaim over the last quarter century or more.

There are ten tracks on this disc, five are strange musical compositions which would not be out of place as a sound track for one of the more improbable science fiction movies. Four are Ronnie Drew reading poems by Louis MacNiece, Brendan Kennelly and others, one is a MacNiece poem sung by Drew. Ronnie speaking in "nice" studied tones, carefully pronouncing every word, provokes a similar reaction to that of Dr. Johnson who was invited to witness his proud neighbour's dog standing on it's back legs. The surprise was not that the dog did so well, but that it did it at all.

Among singers, there have not been many who could recite serious stuff well. The late Luke Kelly was one, Liam Clancy is another. Ronnie should stick to the light humorous stuff.

Céile, Dusk till Dawn, Carrick Music Agency

The first album from Manchesters's new celtic heroes and what a little belter it is. Céile are well grounded in Irish music having graduated from the Saturday Morning club at St. Winnifreds (the same fertile soil that produced Michael McGoldrick). They can play straight trad tunes, they know their sets and can turn in an impressive pastiche of the Bothy Band >from time to time. Where they score most points, direcrt goals rather than shots over the bar, are on their sharp edged, Northern, immigrant, second generation songs. Lyrically they're near to Luka Bloom, musically they're near to, but beyond Spirit of the West. If you want to know where Irish music is going in England, these lads are surely the torch bearers. They deserve plenty of air-play over here in Ireland. I wonder just how serious their record company take them, they only sent me the cassette, come on lads don't be so mean next time.

Trá: Water's Edge, Classic Irish Airs and Dance Music, Carl Hession and Celtic Orchestra

This is the fourth album from Galway-based piano player Carl Hession, and it proves him a very astute and sensitive arranger, able to command an extensive sound-palette including both orchestral and traditional instruments with keyboard. He is meticulous in the sources and documentation of the music and the line-up is impressive: the traditional side includes Johnny Bodhrán Mac Donagh, Frankie Gavin, Máirtín O'Connor, Garry Ó Briain, Steve Cooney, John Faulkner, Jackie Daly and Dermot Byrne. The classical side includes the RTÉ String Quartet and Concert Orchestra principals like David James and Peter Healy. Constantly, as I noted the tracks, they engendered phrases like "good bridge passage", "lovely blend", "nice accordion work".

His own pieces work well, though I preferred Echoes to the first track Morning Gallop. The final track, called The Final Round, really is a round for three accordions, delighting in keeping old rules to make new fancies. The music is relaxed here in its formal dress. The tracks that stand out for me are the Carolan's Morgan Mangan, the slow air Sliabh Geal gCua and the Ace & Deuce taken at a happy pace.

Consumer warning: a few of the tracks here are lifted from previous collections, but they do make a good unit here. This isn't a rave-up, but for those who appreciate craftsmanship, it sits delightfully easy on the ear and respects the inner nature of the music: not a Balkans-rhythm bump within earshot! And for anyone involved in schools music, (listen to track 8 Chestnut Lane, done for Coláiste Iognáid in Galway) or interested in the craft of the arranger, this is a lovely model of how to blend two traditions in harmonious elegance.

Bothar Gan Briseadh/Down the Line, Calua<

Calua are a new band on the Galway scene and this album of eleven tracks is their debut recording. A majority of the tracks revive that suffocating feeling that most musicians have had at one time or another of playing so that the neighbours won't complain or that the young kids might wake up. These talented musicians: Séamus MacConnaonaigh on flute and tin whistle, Padraig Ó Broin on guitar and bouzouki and Damien Quinn on bodhrán, give the impression of only lately being musically introduced and have a bit of getting to know each other to do.

The music is tentative and too often lacking in conviction and the peculiar partly smothered sound of the guitar and bouzouki is bland at best, irritating at worst. A couple of tracks almost shake free of whatever it is that is restricting these musicians and these particular tracks feature the wonderful clear, clean and confidently shaped whistle playing of MacConnaonaigh and the excellent bodhrán playing of Quinn, but even on these tracks too,the guitar and bouzouki are missing. JK

Ó mo dhúchas (from my tradition), Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, Gael Linn

All sean-nós enthusiasts will welcome the CD reissue of this classic recording, with Seosamh at his best, and showing remarkable vocal range in big songs like Casadh an tSúgáin, Úna Bhán and Amhrán Rinn Mhaoile. And there are others which have been picked up by other singers and groups since this was first issued, notably Cailleach an Airgid. The note on the vinyl original observed "is mór an feall é a bheith i measc stráinsáirí", that it was a great wrong to have him living among strangers, as an emigrant. Nobody could have foreseen the great welcome he got subsequently in Seattle, Washington, and few could have hoped his memory would be so bright now, 13 years after his death.

The CD booklet does give the words of all the songs, but no parallel translation. Also, the Irish and English versions of the explanatory notes don't say the same things, and talk more of motifs in European folklore than explaining the complicated stories to which the songs allude.

For example, there's a reference to a place, the Ford of the (river) Doníg in the song Úna Bhán.It means nothing if you don't know that this was the spot where Tomás Láidir Costello waited in mid-stream, hoping to be called back to marry Úna - it's a story rivalled only by the medieval Abelard and Heloise. Fair play to Seán Ó Baoill who recounts it in the notes to Máire Áine Ní Dhonnchadha's album Deora-ille (Claddagh, 1970), though it's dealt with at length by Douglas Hyde in the Love-Songs of Connacht (1905). Tomás, by the way, never got called back, and died of grief, as did Úna.

This isn't pedantic: if the stories aren't preserved, the words won't make sense, and the songs will become obscure and unsung. Contrariwise, if it wasn't for Gael-Linn, they would probably stay locked in libraries. We should indeed be thankful.

Folk Heroes, Various artists - Compilation

If you remember when some of these recordings were made then get yourself a big box of tissues, put the disc on the layer and sit back for what could be a tearful resisting of lost youth. If you are younger, then you're in for a wonderful introduction to some of the best folk recordings of the past thirty years.

There is an element of "where were you when Kennedy was shot" about some of these tracks, defining moments in the development of folk music in Ireland. The Bothy Band with the *Green Groves of Erin* and the *Flowers of Red Hill* set still has the capacity to send strange shivers of delight up the spine of even the most world weary fan of Irish music. The sleeve notes do not carry a picture of Donal Lunny when he played with Emmet Spiceland on *Mary from Dungloe* but even that fresh faced start of a great career his talent was obvious. Altan are here, Clancy and Maken and Sweeney's Men, Stockton's Wing, The Ludlows, The Johnstons, and , and and .

Well just go out and buy the CD. If you do not find something to suit your tastes on the two discs then you are never going to like Irish music. JK

Turas, Dolmen Records, Corofin, Co. Clare 065-37762

Four brilliant teenagers got together at the Listowel fleadh, only a year ago, and to listen to them you'd think they had been group playing for years. Maybe it's the Clare and Limerick roots. Liam O'Connor on fiddle, is from Dublin, but his mother is from Ennistymon; Padraic O'Reilly on piano is from Corofin and Padraig Rynne on concertina is from Caherea. Ronan Ryan on flute and bodhrán is from Amenities, Co. Limerick, but that's only next door. The last three have at least seven all-Ireland titles between them, and Liam is current all-Ireland and Oireachtas champion.

This collection has been put together well, showing the strengths of each player. Ronan Ryan has a particularly strong attack on flute, with a chiff as strong as an organ stop. Padraig Rynne's concertina has a lovely flavour and light triplet playing. Padraic O'Reilly's piano style is influenced a little by Mícheál Súilleabháin, and his repeat triplets and pedalling are very high-class. Liam O'Connor shows very full sweet tone in his slow air and clean confident playing in the reel.

They come together very well in the group items, especially the barn-dance/polka and the hornpipes: they breathe a naturalness of inherited music-making in this astoundingly fine debut album. Séamus Mac Mathúna, in the liner note, refers to their talent and sense of fun. Like him, I'm sure we'll hear a lot more from Turas. JB

Loosen Up, Niamh Parsons and the Loose Connections, Green Linnet

Niamh Parsons has a three-track career; she's a traditional unaccompanied singer, she's also with Arcady and here she's with the Loose Connections, showing power, range and subtlety in a wide range of material. Most of the material is by Dee Moore; I liked the first track, The Big Bad Wolf, which has a Cajun feel.

Other tracks explore unusual combinations, such as uilleann pipes, accordion and sax (Richie Buckley's playing is always a joy), and in a harmony on Tom Waits' The Briar and the Rose with Fran McPhail (Voice Squad) and solo cello backing from Neil Martin. There are also good experimental effects on the two instrumental tracks. Trouble is that the genres vary from tango beat to soft rock to an unaccompanied last track (lovely singing) and connections are indeed very loose. Pleasant listening, but I'd prefer something with more bite or clout. JB

Emigrant Eyes, Finnegan's Wake

Finnegan's Wake are from Tasmania, Van Dieman's Land, the subject of many a good ballad of the bad old days. Two women, two men with a range of instruments including, celtic harp, keyboards, guitar, bouzouki, G-banjo and whistles constitute the line-up of this antipodean group. They may not know it but they have counterparts on at least three continents, the best of which is the Canadian variant, who are based in Calgary.

The offering from the Australia branch of the species is easy to listen to, pleasant and competent, but it's hardly likely to make folk sit up and listen. The singing is thin, the musical touch unsure . They have made the mistake of recording songs such as Nancy Spain and Sonny, the definitive versions of which are of a very high standard. This Finnegan's Wake effort suffers by the inevitable comparison. The stimulating and self-critical influence of being part of a vital, flourishing music scene is an important element in the development of any group. Far away in Australia, Finnegan's Wake may be lacking that stimulation and it shows.

Sessions, Bohinta

(Alex Moffat finds it tough going with this CD, it can be a dogs' life being an Irish Music CD reviewer).

It's easy enough to imagine the kind of interviews that Bohinta's Martin and Áine Furey will give when they set about promoting Sessions. I am fairly sure there will be lots of talk about how the music industry is restrictive and obsessed with categorisation; how they are striving to break away from this and draw influences from across the broad folk, trad, pop, you name-it; how the album is all about taking risks, experimenting, being adventurous. All these sentiments are in theory laudable, but they also have to be defended by action, for me, in the case of Bohinta, the practical result is singularly unimpressive.

Imagine a cross-breeding of The Frames' Fitzcarralado (not a good start so far) with token elements of traditional Irish music and Brian Kennedy-style pop, shroud it all in a thick celtic mist, and you've gone some way toward understanding the Bohinta sound.

Martin Furey's voice is relentlessly harsh and grating, which is probably the ideal tone for his boring, monumentally pretentious songs. Here's a sample from Broken One: "You are my weeping ever-broken woman .../ ....stands alone in the corner with an ice cube on her shoulder / Ice pick, cold hands ".

On Fortsong he keeps wailing that he is a free-born man again . Tracks where Áine Furey takes the vocals are a little better since her voice is quite attractive, but even these are weighed down by the pretentious lyrics and arrangements. In fact the only things which make this album bearable are the few brief instrumental sections. Martin Furey is clearly a fine whistle player (great pedigree - Ed.) and Charlie Anglim contributes an excellent, all too short fiddle solo on Broken One. However, these details are too slight to rescue a thoroughly dour, humourless album AM