Nuala Kennedy blunders early on her third full-length, Noble Stranger, by leading off with the weakest song on the record. “Gabriel Sings” is pretty enough but it lacks oomph and, more importantly, fails to cohere with the other tunes on the record, most of which contain a strong Irish-traditional component. This stumbling right out of the gate is unfortunate, and follow-up ballad “My Bonny Labouring Boy” isn’t quite vibrant enough to set things entirely right.
Not till the crashing instrumental of “Love at the Swimming Pool” and the tragic, stomping “Lord Duneagle” do things really take off; happily though, from here on out Kennedy never looks back. Two-part instrumental “Asturias” features some of her most graceful, fluid flute work, while “Paddy’s Lamentation” benefits from her soaring, wistful vocals. “Banks of the Roses” is another pretty song about horrible things, while “Napolean’s Dream” closes the proceedings gently (at least until the two bonus tracks kick in). Kennedy’s supporting musicians are a tight group, offering plenty of sonic variety and rhythmic heft, so if you can get over the stumbling start, Noble Stranger is likely to be one of the finest trad-rock offerings you’ll hear all year.