CD Reviews – June 2019

The Outside Track, “Rise Up” • The pan-Celtic, intercontinental quintet is back with a new album, and another alteration to its lineup: Scotland’s Michael Ferrie has replaced German-Irish guitarist Cillian O’Dalaigh; this comes after Cork vocalist and flute/whistle player Teresa Horgan succeeded Canadian Norah Rendell on the band’s previous release, 2015’s “Light Up the Dark.” Long-time members Ailie Robertson (harp) and Fiona Black (accordion), both of Scotland, and fiddler Mairi Rankin – from one of Cape Breton’s most distinguished musical families – provide the continuity and institutional memory.
Whatever the changes, The Outside Track is as exceptional as ever in expressing, while simultaneously and seamlessly uniting, different strains of Celtic-related traditions. This is particularly evident in its instrumental repertoire of mainly modern compositions in the traditional style, plus several band originals. In the “Dark Reels” medley, replete with changeling rhythms and accents, Robertson’s deft playing leads her beguiling, Balkanesque “Craigard,” with flute and fiddle slowly rising to the fore; after a transitional passage, Black rides in – Ferrie and Horgan right there with her – to spearhead Lauren MacColl’s formidable “And Sheep Will Eat Men” before Robertson returns to guide another of her tunes, “Gaït Genouël’s Reel,” punctuated by Rankin’s outstanding break near the end.
The endearing jig medley “Road to Rollo Bay,” with a lovely intro by Ferrie, is the titular tune by Prince Edward Islander Shelly Campbell; Jenna Reid’s “Sarah-Jane” (a comely harp-flute duet at the outset); and, in a minor-key shift, Lúnasa uilleann piper Niall Vallely’s “Nina.” In contrast to the Celtic-polyglot character elsewhere, “The Silver Bullet” is solid Cape Breton, spotlighting Rankin’s energizing fiddle – matched note for note by Black and powered by Ferrie – on a pair of strathspeys “Shelly Campbell’s” (by Kinnon Beaton) and “MJ’s” (Wendy MacIsaac), concluding with a couple of brawny reels, the traditional “Miss Betty Ann Gordon” and Rosemary Poirier’s “The Silver Bullet.” (Stephen Henderson’s drums and Cormac Byrne’s bodhran and other percussion are a welcome presence throughout the album, especially on the instrumental sets.)
Where “Light Up the Dark” had a decided contemporary-folk quality to its songs, like the rural/blue-collar North American vibe of Nanci Griffith’s “Trouble in the Fields” and Lennie Gallant’s “Peter’s Dream,” “Rise Up” feels strongly rooted in traditional song, what with “Neillí Pluincéad (Eleanor Plunkett),” a setting of the poem and tune by O’Carolan, and an Americana-tinted “Sweet Lover of Mine,” Scots singer Emily Smith’s collation of versions of “Scarborough Fair.” Best of all are three time-honored ballads: “Banks of the Sweet Dundee,” and its nevertheless-she-persisted storyline; the super-natural “Wife of Usher’s Well”; and the chilling “Lady Diamond,” a tour-de-force for Horgan who, while cognizant of pop/modern influences, focuses like a laser on the conjoined potency of narrative and melody – and puts to shame the notion of trad songs being quaint, trivial affairs. []

HighTime, “Sunda” • The youthful trio of Ciarán Bolger (vocals, guitar), Séamus Flaherty (vocals, harp, bodhran) and Conall Flaherty (vocals, flute, whistle) comes from Ardmore in Connemara, and boasts some substantial performance experience: Bolger has toured with the “Celtic Legends” international stage production, as has Conall Flaherty, who also appeared in another extravaganza, “Rhythm of the Dance”; Conall’s brother Seamus, meanwhile, played with Cherish the Ladies two years ago at Celtic Connections and has been involved in other traveling shows.
This resumé suggests a certain savviness to HighTime’s approach, which brings together diverse elements in its sound, from sean-nos songs to classic tunes of the Irish Atlantic coast to traditional and contemporary folk songs animated by three-part harmony. Their renditions of the capstan sea shanty “South Australia” and “Fiddler’s Green,” by American singer-songwriter Tim O’Brien (not to be confused with the song of the same name by John Connolly), for instance, have a jaunty, latter-day ballad-group affect. But they achieve a different aesthetic elsewhere, especially on “Village of Cloch Bhuí” – an elegantly crafted emigration song by Don Stiffe – which Bolger’s lead vocal imbues with equal parts reminiscence and resolve (and not a hint of mawkishness), and even more so on the hauntingly beautiful “An Tiarna Randall,” Séamus Flaherty demonstrating his command of the sean-nós (old style) singing tradition.
Similarly, their instrumental sets – the tracks all are titled in Gaelic – include old reliables like “Maid of Mt. Kisco,” “Monaghan Jig,” “Man of the House” and “Out on the Ocean,” yet there’s no question about the high level of musicianship, particularly on the part of the Flahertys: Séamus is in the spotlight on his own “Fad Saoil” as well as the first part of “An Maolín” while Conall powers through a set of reels – featuring Marcus Hernon’s vivacious “The Lively Wagtail” – on “Ifearnáin” with flute (Séamus shows his bodhran chops here) and in the latter part of “Iorras” on whistle. Bolger’s guitar is rock solid throughout, and rock-steady on the opening of “Iorras,” the aforementioned “Maid of Mt. Kisco.”
A quibble here or there: Their cover of Richard Thompson’s “Beeswing” (increasingly at risk of overexposure these days) is maybe a touch too brisk, which serves to lessen the song’s tender, reflective nature. And if you like sleeve notes, especially those that detail the contents of instrumental sets, they’re in short supply on “Sunda.” Hardly unforgivable offenses.
While the harp and flute’s centrality gives HighTime a deceptively ethereal, almost cryptic demeanor, there is nothing remote or inaccessible about their music. Quite the contrary. (You can judge for yourself if you catch them at The Burren Backroom series this month; see the June events round-up elsewhere.) []
Glenn & Ronan, “Horizon” • Former University College Dublin students Glenn Murphy and Ronan Scolard have reaped the rewards of the digital age. Three years ago, their video medley of songs by Adele went viral, and shortly thereafter the international singer-songwriter star invited the duo on stage with her, amplifying a media frenzy that saw them land an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and in other high-profile events.
As their debut album shows, their celebrity in the soft-pop music domain has merit: Both possess bracing yet tender voices that complement one another to perfection, all of which suits the unabashedly romantic content of their material. The songs on “Horizon,” half of which are Scolard or Murphy/Scolard originals, dwell a lot on the agonies and ecstasies of love and the grace of devotion: “I’ve been lost about a hundred million times/I’ve been searching for some freedom in my mind/Every day feels like a battle deep inside/Leavin’ all the love and innocence behind” (“Close My Eyes”); “I have loved and lost/Though it hurts/It’s better to have loved/And to lose it all and fall/Than to not have loved at all” (“Loved & Lost”); “When you’re scared/When you’re broken/I will care for you/My heart is open” (“Safe & Sound”).
Not exactly the stuff of Shakespearean sonnets, sure, but Murphy and Scoland deliver the songs with a healthily restrained earnestness that sometimes achieves an almost liturgical dimension (both had choir experience, after all, and were part of the Choral Scholars at UCD). Wisely, they avoid string sections and other facets of over-production, relying largely on guitar, keyboards and drums for backing. Altogether, it’s a pleasant if not especially memorable listening experience. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, someone will do a viral video based on Glenn & Ronan songs, and complete the circle. []