I’ve barely touched on the Rough Guides this year, but it’s worth noticing that World Music Network has started packaging them with bonus albums. “Our favourite source CD from among the top artists featured on this collection,” they say. The first edition of Rough Guide to Irish Folk came out in 1996, the label’s early days. Today its repertoire sounds limited. In this new edition, their favorite source CD is Karan Casey’s 2008 disc, Ships in the Forest. Casey used to sing with the American Irish group Solas before she shifted to a solo career in the 1990s. Ships in the Forest features her sweet tweet accompanied by a guitar and a few other instruments. The instruments are deliberately minimal. On one of the tracks she sings alone and her voice shoots out like flocks of butterflies.
Ships is pretty, but after listening to the compilation I wished they had given us something else. Specifically, I wished they’d given us Con Ó Drisceoil’s The Spoons Murder and Other Mysteries. “The Spoons Murder”, included here, is a humourous poem, half-spoken half-sung, dealing with a musician’s righteous strangling of a man who interrupts his group’s session by playing spoons. As I listened to it, it occurred to me that what I was hearing was a modern version of the bardic glam dicenn, or satire, the bringing down of curses on the poet’s enemies, in this case unmusical people who barge into pub sessions and make nuisances of themselves.
There’s nothing else on the compilation like it. In fact there’s nothing on the compilation that’s completely like anything else on the compilation. Each track adds a new idea to the pile: an instance of flash accordion, (Martin Tourish in “Tripin'”), a pair of slip jigs on flute and guitar (“Elizabeth Kelly’s Favourite / Follow Me Down to Limerick” with Catherine McEvoy on flute and Steve Cooney on guitar), a bolting, roaring singalong from South Tipperary’s Rattle the Boards (“St Patrick Was a Gentleman”), and a singalong in a more sentimental key from Robbie O’Connell. O’Connell is nephew to all three members of The Clancy Brothers, a mid-century group whose albums formed part of a wave of Irish trad nostalgia that floated across the US and other parts of the Anglo world during the 1960s and onward into the ’70s, ’80s’ and ’90s, which was when my expat neighbours liked to get howling maudlin drunk to “When You And I Were Young Maggie” at three in the morning four times a week. O’Connell follows the guiding star of his uncles and sings “The Flower of Kilkenney” in a malty shamrock voice.
Then there are polkas, fiddlers, the larklike Gaelic of Roisin Elsafty (whose album I also would have taken over Karan Casey’s), a song about “the Irish battalion that fought for the Mexicans during the 1846 war with the US”, an example of “Davy Spillane’s atmospheric whistle”, a guest appearance by Scotland’s Julie Fowlis (lending a hand to Gaelic-singing friends across the water), and other interesting things. The musicians are studio-bound. Niamh Parsons might be singing about something that happened in 1846, and “Beauty Deas An Oileáin” “recounts a boat race in 1880”, but none of the recordings are more than a few years old. And they sound new, cleanly done. The older style of O’Connell’s song throws this into relief. Put a different accent on Cara Dillon and her “Jimmy Mo Mhile Stór” could be an American country music track recorded yesterday. With this Rough Guide Geoff Willis, the compiler, must have been aiming to put together a concise round-up of living musicians who show their own fidelity to established styles. This comes off pretty well. He keeps his hands on the past and the present. The past isn’t over-sentimentalised and the present isn’t too Enya-sanitised, just polished enough that the yawl of Rattle the Boards doing “St Patrick Was a Gentleman” is welcome when it arrives. Willis’ playlist moves around as if he had no distinct plan, as if he sat down and shuffled the order until he sensed, by musical instinct, that the tracks felt natural together. It’s an organic arrangement that never gets in the way of the listener. A tidy piece of work.