[20 April 2009]
I was on John Doyle’s website, reading a review of an album recorded by his father Sean Doyle, when this line leapt at me:
“Sean takes the tunes out of the smoke of the pub and preserves them in a lovely amber.”
This was written by Marty Lipp of Global Rhythm, and the album in question is a recording of traditional Irish songs, The Light and The Half Light, which was released in 2004. Sean Doyle is a folk singer, a talented amateur, a retired man who spent his working life in the role of a police officer. His son is a professional guitarist who makes a living out of his music, touring and recording with folk luminaries such as Solas and Kate Rusby. He has performed on more than 40 albums, his father only one. Yet the words I had been groping for as I was trying to find some way of summing up Double Play were something like the ones Lipp had used to describe the father. So: John Doyle and Liz Carroll take the tunes out of the smoke of the pub and preserve them in a lovely amber.
Then I think: But “amber” is not right, it sounds too stiff, as if the music has been encased, immobilised, and no, this album moves …
But there is definitely something of that removal in there, that “taking the tunes out of the pub” and bringing them into open-air settings, into concert halls even, removing the folk songs from the hands of the untrained folk and handing them to the professionals, who manage to remain faithful to the folkishness in them—the brightness, the kicky quality—in spite of their training. They knock the rough edges off without killing the tune completely. They’re good enough to make you believe that this jig or reel might never have had rough edges in the first place, or that of it had them then it’s ten times better off without them.
John Doyle is Irish, born in Dublin. Liz Carroll is American, born in Chicago of Irish ancestry. A fiddler since childhood, she went on to win, in her late teens, the fiddling category of the All-Ireland Music Championships, the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, a respectable prize. That carried over into a career, solo albums, collaborations, a gig in front of the US president on St. Patrick’s Day with Doyle by her side. Double Play is the second recording to star the pair of them as a duet. The first was 2005’s In Play.
Carroll is known for her ability to balance formal control with expressiveness, playing well but not stiffly. A trained sound, yet not of the classroom. You can hear that at the start of this album when she lights into “The Chandelier / Ann Lacey’s”, a medley that kicks off sounding trim—that was my first impression—then twists up and jigs and skips, getting faster as it goes, growing into a kind of lilt-and-grind just past the two-minute mark. This grind recurs throughout the album. It’s a way she has of bearing down on the strings so that you can hear the strain on them as the bow digs in, then the lightness as they’re relieved of the pressure. A sort of aural scooping shape.
After that the album calms down for a while. We hear more of Doyle’s guitar, we hear him singing here and there. He uses the same voice whether he’s singing the part of a miner, a lover, or a hare, and it’s disconcerting when he tells us that the worst thing he’s ever done is eat the heads off kale. Hitting “Paddy Glackin’s Trip to Dingle / On the Lam / The Waves At Dingle / The Top of the Stairs” the fiddle goes nuts, twisting and whipping at speed while the guitar pelts along. Things simmer low with “Little Christmas / The Old Course / The Twilight Child”, pick up a swinging flick with “Rushin’ Dressing / The Quitter / Remove the Rug”, and come to a close on a brisk note somewhere between stepdance and hoedown.
The beauty of this album lies in the way the instruments manage to keep a buttery, human impressionism even while they’re playing swiftly and precisely. The exactness of Carroll’s fiddle is never mechanical. The orange warmth of the amber-idea is there, even if the stiffness isn’t. In this case, removing folk music from its natural setting hasn’t gutted the sound, it’s given it room to concentrate on itself, away from the press of the crowd. An outstanding album.