Hands Across the Water:
From Gaelic to Graceland

By Ian Worpole, Contributor
Febuary / March 2006

This issue’s CD Half Dozen includes three that are in large part sung in Gaelic, which bodes well for the language but poorly for the artist (unless of course you are Enya). For it is well nigh impossible to retain a name not of one’s own language, even as far as the local music store, so be advised. Carry this review with you wherever you go. But first up we have a collection of Irish-American songs in English.

Hands Across the Water is the brainchild of Andrea Zonn, in collaboration with Compass records. Over 100 musicians and 30 studios collaborated post haste to produce a benefit CD for the children of last year’s Asian tsunami. A truly exhilarating brew in the vein of (*)Transatlantic Sessions, most of the songs are brand new, and are a melting pot of Irish/Nashville sensibility. Indeed, most of them are duets pairing the likes of Paul Brady and Rodney Crowell (who belt out Johnny Cash’s “40 Shades of Green”), Tim O’Brien with Lúnasa, Altan with Vince Gill, Sharon Shannon and Jackson Browne — you get the idea.

My personal favorite is Cerys Matthews, huge in Europe as singer for Welsh punk-rock band Catatonia and now resident in Nashville; here she transforms the traditional “An Occasional Song” into a swinging vaudeville number, thanks in part to the astonishing John Jorgenson on clarinet. Other luminaries include John and Fiona Prine, Jerry Douglas, Alison Brown, Maura O’Connell, Solas, Flook, Danu, and many more. Sixteen great tracks for a great cause. Buy it! (For more info, go to www.HandsAcrossTheWater.com)

Speaking of Solas, fiddler Winifred Horan and accordion player Mick McAuley have just released a duo CD, Serenade, which is both an extension of the Solas band’s style and a more personal taste in song. The two offer well-honed sets of reels and jigs. The Chorus Reels in particular stand out, but there are also new tunes by Horan. “Little Mona Lisa” is a beautiful waltz in the vein of her classic “Fig for a Kiss.” An elegaic and fluid fiddler, she is equally comfortable, and creative, when accompanying songs, and a true delight to listen to.

Mick McAuley plays a driven accordion and multi-instruments, and on this album he composes a haunting set of jigs, “Serenade” and “The Cafe Milou,” and steps out as a singer, offering a wistful Dylan song “To Make You Feel My Love.” One pet peeve though. As did Linda Ronstadt, Mick sings the line “I felt like I could fly” on Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. As a child of the sixties who holds the whole Gold Rush album as a sacred text, I must point out that Neil actually sings “I felt like getting high.” Was that really so bad? Sorry, totally trivial, one of those “didn’t inhale” moments. It’s a beautiful CD, it really is.

Enter The Haggis, kilts and all. When I caught the band a few weeks ago at Paddy Reilly’s in New York they were indeed smoking, musically, of course. A Celtic-punk band in the spirit of the Pogues and Black 47, ETH, as they are affectionately known to their HaggisHead followers, took the place apart with driven electric fiddle, guitars, bass and bagpipes, backed up by Led Zeppelin style drums (Thundering John Bonham would be proud, Mr. Campbell).

Their fourth album, Casualties of Retail manages to capture the live quality admirably, with original and traditional reels, songs and sheer hard rock all mashed together in a Celtic-punk free-for-all that, despite all odds, remains quite coherent. “Life for Love” is a standout, as is “Down with the Ship,” both anthemic, bagpipe-driven songs. Indeed, the band’s original material fares best. The only weakness for me on this album is the traditional and usually haunting “She Moved Through the Fair,” but here the delivery demands more than “She wen’ away from me.” Brian Buchanan’s driven fiddle playing and vocals tend to stand out on stage, but vocal duties are shared by Trevor Lewington, who finished up the Paddy Reilly’s gig from on top of the bar, to the roaring approval of the crowd — not for the faint of heart, this crew. Craig Downie on highland bagpipes gives the band a canny Mull of Kintyre feeling, and Mark Abraham on electric bass and vocals rounds out the band, and long may they tour and prosper.

So, into the Gaelic: Niamh de Búrca is, according to Altan’s Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh, one of Irish music’s best kept secrets. I’m usually pretty dubious about that accolade, but in this case it is absolutely true. De Búrca’s new CD, Where Your Heart Lies, released on the Gael Linn label, is a sincerely traditional sound with a deceptively modern impact — think June Tabor without the angst, or Niamh Parsons as is. Her classically beautiful voice is set against the delicate counterpoint piano playing of Seamus Brett, with Maire Breatnach on fiddle and viola. Various guitarists, pipers and percussionists round out a varied and well-balanced sound.

Breatnach also produced and arranged many of the tracks, along with Brett, and great credit to them for that altogether; nary a synthesizer to be heard! De Búrca has obviously paid her dues as a long-serving interpreter of traditional song, both in Gaelic and English, and has been rewarded with the best of musicianship to accompany her on this beautiful album. “Barr a’tSleibhe” is outstanding, and the closing track, the oft hoary “Here’s a Health” is instead sheer elation, with a swinging double bass and drums carrying voice and chorus happily along. Please, no more best kept secrets, Niamh. (The Gael Linn label is dedicated to promoting the Irish language and heritage through music, books and much more. Visit www.gaellinn.com to learn more).

Into the Gaelic, indeed. Iarla O Lionárd’s long-awaited third solo CD, Invisible Fields, is, as he comments on the liner notes, “among other things, a love song to the Irish language,” and indeed this haunting, brooding work, confirms his place as the foremost sean nós (old style) singer in Ireland today, albeit with accompaniment. Well known as singer for the world fusion band Afro Celt Sound System, not my favorite name I must say, Iarla (pronounced EAR-la) drew acclaim at a young age for his unearthly, pitch-perfect voice, and over the years gained the ear of Peter Gabriel, Bono and the like. This album, recorded at his home studio in County Kilkenny, is one of a sublimely beautiful voice soaring over and under dark, spare string arrangements and natural sounds, bird-song, even radio recordings of his parents’ voices. Reminiscent of Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece and Terry Riley’s tape loop compositions, the last third or so of the album becomes an abstract tapestry of voice and atmosphere. O Lionáird talks movingly of poets exchanging visions, and how music can blur the boundaries between the real and the imaginary, and it is indeed all here. The CD features 10th-century Gaelic storytelling and the poems of Sean ÓRiordáin, a poet from Iarla’s own village. Standout tracks include “Taimse Im’ Chodladh” and “Cu-cu-ín.” Guests include British minimalist composer Gavin Bryars and his viola septet, and Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo. This album is sheer genius and so far my pick of the year.

And so to Enya. I must confess I had pretty much written my review before I’d even heard her new offering, Amarantine. It’s over 20 years since Eithne Ni Bhraonain first came to notice with her ethereal blend of the Celtic muse, a sound that has become so familiar on soundtracks, her own CDs, even other people’s CDs.

Her breakout album Watermark included the hit “Orinoco Flow,” and we couldn’t get enough of her. Shepherd’s Moon followed, and a further four or five since then. Her lyricist, Roma Ryan, has written in many languages, and on Amarantine has even invented a new one, Loxian. “A futuristic language from a Distant Planet.” Hmm. It would be disingenuous of me to say enough already, as I have truly loved her music over the years, but lately I feel a bit like Frodo fleeing the Mines of Moria. And it really isn’t her fault that news organizations invariably turn to her sound as backdrops to war, famine and disaster. And everyone thinks she did the soundtrack to Titanic, which in fact she turned down. And in fact there really is some lovely music on Amarantine, and I’ll be damned if I can’t stop playing it, despite the nursery-rhyme lyrics of the non-futuristic kind So what can I say? She has it all, and she realized early on that Enya you can take to the store, Eithne Ni Bhraonain you can’t (Are you listening, Iarla?) But wouldn’t it be nice just one time to hear that incredible voice without the echo, just a piano a la Niamh de Búrca, or maybe some classics mixed with new material? And even perform a concert We’d love to see beyond the electronic veil, we really would.

Codhlaím go sámh.

(*) Transatlantic Sessions is a BBC TV series shown on Ovation in the U.S. Led by Ali Bain and Jerry Douglas, it gets together the best of Celtic and American musicians of sessions. ♦

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