Despite the promotional material touting the session and live atmosphere of such inclusions, this compilation better displays the sheen that warm production and studio time can give to gloss these tunes.
A Rough Guide to Irish Music features both big names and newcomers. That so many growing bands are showcased on this compilation is heartening. It seems to indicate that, despite the recession, which has closed down many pubs and forced many young people to emigrate, Irish music persists. As a symbol of defiance, celebration, and endurance, this compilation from Compass Records artists introduces listeners to styles both current and traditional.
Opening with a jaw harp and autoharp, Sligo trio The Unwanted hint at Appalachian roots by employing a sly, slippery mood for “The Duke of Leinster/Gardiner’s/John Stenson’s #2”. Solas, a familiar New York City ensemble, offer a sauntering, relaxed (if still briskly sung by Máiréad Phelan) take on the traditional “A Sailor’s Life”, popularized by Judy Collins, Martin Carthy, and Fairport Convention.
The veteran Donegal band Altan reliably deliver “Tommy Potts’ Slip Jig”, which compliments Solas’ style. Former Solas vocalist Karan Casey and guitarist John Doyle join together for “Bay of Biscay” by the late County Clare singer Nora Cleary. It’s a poignant tale of a ghostly swain visiting his separated lover, and the spare form Casey and Doyle adapt recalls British folk rocker's Pentangle’s somber fusion of space and tone.
From County Antrim, flute player Brendan Mulholland’s three jigs, “The King of the Pipers/Behind the Haystack/The Maid on the Green”, follow to lighten the mood. Jack Talty and Cormac Begley join Clare with Kerry, two lilting traditions blending for the concertina slides “Paddy Cronin’s/If I Had a Wife”.
Andy Irvine, from Sweeney’s Men and Planxty, has spent nearly fifty years championing this music, more recently with Patrick Street and Mozaik. He sings a merry tale of a close encounter, “The Close Shave” by New Zealander Bob Bickerton; Irvine’s confident, cocky delivery accompanies his trademark bouzouki.
Athlone accordionist Paul Brock and Sligo fiddler Manus McGuire combine forces with American country musicians in their eponymous band. Their “Moving Cloud” steps along in lively form, with banjo too. Another type of fusion arrives from Iarla Ó Lionáird (Afro-Celt Sound System), who updates with atmospheric production and world music innovations his native Irish-language sean-nós (old style) unaccompanied vocal tradition. His “The Heart of the World” sustains this elegant, dignified blend.
Another popular collaborator, Sharon Shannon (The Waterboys) demonstrates her button accordion skills on “Neckbelly”. These slickly mingle with a hipper, MOR-type of mass appeal backbeat--not to all tastes admittedly--but like Ó Lionáird, this direction indicates the contemporary influences which--as Irvine’s bouzouki illustrates--enter into the Irish repertoire and attest to its continuing relevance.
FIDIL, logically the Gaelic name for "fiddle", pluck and tap their instruments. This Donegal trio (featuring a nephew of Altan’s singer-fiddler) highlights a local style of “bassing” a fiddle at a lower octave than another. This echoes the uilleann pipes of one of that region’s talented players, Joe Doherty. “Kiss the Maid Behind the Byre/Tá Do Mhargadh Déanta” show off this home turf choice well.
Gráinne Holland, from the urban Gaeltacht of West Belfast, on “Dónal Na Gréine” pulls off a tongue-twisting tale of (fittingly) a feckless drunk in sean-nós (with the percussive drum, the bodhrán) impressively. It’s back to Altan’s Dermot Byrne on fiddle who, with Parisian harper Floriane Blancke, join for “Sore Point”; despite its name (from a Chris Newman composition), it flows nimbly.
As well as Donegal, Clare persists in the pedigree of many musicians; Hugh Healy’s concertina (a feature of that county) and uilleann piper Michael “Blackie” O’Connell offer a welcome listen in the sprightly “The Hut on Staten Island" (originally for banjo) and “The De’il Among the Tailors” from Packie Russell, one of Clare’s Doolin trio of famous musical brothers.
The flute and tin whistle of Flook's Brian Flanagan may be familiar; here he name's three songs after Belfast: “Back to Belfast/Anne Lacey/Eroticon VI”. Given the latter title’s hint of sexiness, they all sound jittery, excited, and impatient. Like Ó Lionáird, Flanagan integrates world music textures to form a more accessible version of Irish music; this may dismay purists but it arguably broadens appeal.
Belfast representation continues with John McSherry on pipes and whistles, Dónal O’Connor on fiddle, and Francis McIlduff on percussion, pipes, and whistles (McSherry, O’Connor and slide guitarist Bob Brozman feature on a similarly eclectic, worthwhile bonus disc, Six Days in Down). A trio named At First Light, they pair their new “The Pipers of Roguery” with a tune appearing in print first in 1756, “The Hag at the Spinning Wheel”. Both of these songs mix more traditional sounds with an expanded ensemble’s guitars for a pleasing depth. It recalls the efforts of The Bothy Band from the 1970s in this layered, sequentially structured mode.
What would a compilation be without a supergroup? Donegal’s vocalist Moya Brennan (Clannad), Altan’s fiddler-singer Máiréad Ní Mhaonaigh, and multi-talented sisters Tríona (The Bothy Band, Touchstone, Relativity, Nightnoise) and Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill (Skara Brae) join up with Manus Lunny for “Wedding Dress”. Recorded by Pentangle in 1971, this concludes the album with a chorus of voices in gentle but firm style, as listeners to Clannad and the bands in this paragraph will recognize.
Recommended for its fair nods to the various types of Irish music now in vogue, this might please experienced listeners who may (as did I) find a few fresh entries. Despite the promotional material touting the session and live atmosphere of such inclusions, this compilation better displays the glossy sheen that warm production and studio time can give to these tunes. It's not as rough as its title lets on. For beginners who want to explore less raw, more fluid deliveries via the Irish styles found in many releases on the Compass and related labels, this is for you.