Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh is a member of the group Danu, one of the more promising Celtic groups of the last few years. And while Danu continues to excel with each album, the band is only as strong as its parts, and this singer’s precious, at times fragile, vocals are an integral part of that. This new album features her performing a string of covers and traditional songs, covering the likes of Richard Thompson and older standards that have been passed down for generations. The first of these songs is “Western Highway”, which is as close as one might get to Celtic country music. The folksy nature of the song allows the voice to seize the moment, and Nic Amhlaoibh does that here from start to finish, although it’s not as spectacular or amazing as it could be. It’s still fairly strong, but not jaw-dropping or giving one the bumps that a goose possesses. One asset, though, is how the song’s writer Gerry O’Beirne actually performs on the song.
A much better effort comes with the jaunty little ditty “Free And Easy”. It’s a simple but solid folk song that brings to mind artists like Kate Rusby - a toe-tapping kind of tune, even if it’s not that upbeat or high-energy. Fans of the Clancy Brothers might lap a number like this up, though, for the sweet pleasing effect it has on the ears (and between them in some cases). Meanwhile, “Seoithin Seotho” has Nic Amhlaoibh singing in her native Gaelic tongue while strings flesh out the lovely lullaby track, a song she would sing as a child, according to the liner notes. Think of a song that Celtic Woman might have included in their recent live cd and DVD, and you’ll get the gist behind how soft and flighty this one is. The traditional Celtic “toe-tapper” comes with “Cnocan An Teampraill”, an older song that was initially named “Hardy Man The Fiddler”. It’s a brief but bouncy number that is part reel and part jig, with the tin whistle, guitar and what sounds like a bodhran in the distance working in unison.
What sells this album, though, are the performances from the singer, particularly on “Persuasion”, which may showcase her talents best. Not quite reaching the ethereal heights of Enya, the song’s charm is in its traditional arrangement. Each instrument is given enough space to shine without stepping on the toes of the others. The lyrics are also rock-solid, but that’s bound to happen when you have Richard Thompson in one corner and Tim Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House, Finn Brothers) in the other. There’s some fine guitar playing from Shane McGowan as well, not to be confused with Pogues singer Shane MacGowan. The challenge for most singers in this genre is whether they can carry laments or haunting pieces, and she succeeds with flying colors on the gorgeous and wistful “Slan Le Maigh” (“The Jolly Piper”), which has her reaching the high notes easily, as well as those winding, weaving notes that she holds perfectly. And if that wasn’t enough evidence, Exhibit B comes along with the tender “Isle Of Malachy” and, perhaps the strongest of the trio, “The Emigrant’s Farewell”, where her voice is nearly left alone in terms of accompaniment.
The sleeper pick is how the music, the language and the voice come together for the beautiful and punchy “An Spealadoir”, which is splendid and brings to mind the Rankin Family or Mary Jane Lamond. The lone miscue on the album might be the arduous and plodding “Banks Of The Nile”, but even that song should have the listener cozying up to it after two or three plays. Overall, Daybreak: Fainne An Lae is an album that keeps the Celtic/Gaelic/Irish musical tradition as strong as it ever was.