When Irish America handed me half a dozen CD’s to review, I promptly visualized a neat column; a paragraph each; thumbs up or down. But as each jewel box unfolded I realized there was something more complicated going on; consequently I may be inclined to ramble, for this is Celtic Music. Or World Music; Folk Rock, Irish, Scottish, English, Brittany, Acid-Croft, Afro-Celt, Gaelic, Irish-Americana even. This 21st century offers a dazzling array of pure and hybrid forms of the Celtic muse, and these CD’s happened to run the gamut. Now, this may be due in part to the fact that they are all on the Compass Records label, so let’s start at the beginning.
There are many quality independent labels out there: Shanachie, Green Linnet, Rounder, but the Compass label stands out these days as an eclectic catalogue of Folk, Celtic, Jazz and Country music, much of it recorded in their own studios.
Based in Nashville, founders Garry West and Alison Brown are professional musicians, and when they started the Compass label 10 years ago they set out to create an artist-friendly environment. It is, as Brown says, “an outlet for other people’s music, music that needs to be out there and available for people to hear.”
They’ve since garnered rave reviews in the press and are currently releasing about 20 albums per year. The stable includes the likes of Fairport Convention, Kate Rusby, Paul Brady, Sharon Shannon, and relative newcomers such as Grada.
A young Irish band, Grada has just released Endeavor, their debut CD on the Compass label. In a similar vein to bands such as Danu and Solas, Grada features silky-voiced singing by Anne Marie O’Malley alternating with sets of tunes. Flautist Alan Doherty and guitarist Gerry Paul have a jazz-inflected style, so that a traditional song such as “She’s Like a Swallow” swings along nicely. Brendan O’Sullivan plays outstanding fiddle on my favorite tune set, “Snow Leopard.” Andrew Laking on double bass and percussionist Dave Hingerty round out the band with a buoyant sound. Laking also sings the delightful title track, “Endeavor,” with guest singer Miriam Ingram.
Dublin-born, American-based guitarist John Doyle’s second solo album Wayward Son features double bass legend Danny Thompson on several tracks, along with Alison Brown on banjo and various other guests. Partly recorded in the Compass studios, this CD confirms Doyle’s place in the pantheon of master Irish guitarists, along with the likes of Artie McGlynn and Paul Brady (much more about Brady later). From being a founding member of Solas to accompanying and/or producing the best of the rest, Doyle’s percussive style of playing as he ranges up and down the fret-board is nothing less than exhilarating. On top of that, he can really sing, a gift handed down from his father, Sean, who appeared on John’s first album and has since released his own fine CD. Tracks such as “Captain Glenn” and the original “Bitter the Parting” with guest vocals from Kate Rusby are flawless.
Doyle has toured on and off for many years with Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll, and the duo has just released In Play. A virtuoso fiddle player, Carroll is probably the most prolific composer of Irish fiddle tunes today, and many of her tunes have entered the Irish canon and are performed around the world. Most of the tunes on this CD are her own compositions; complex and powerful and complemented at every turn by Doyle’s guitar, this is mighty stuff. My only caveat would be to hear something a little more familiar occasionally to catch one’s breath and rest the learning mode.
In concert with Liz, John throws in the occasional song, but if that means throwing out the likes of “The Morris Minor” reel, never mind. (Not to be confused with the “Mini Minor” set by Grada; both named for types of vintage, tiny British cars, one round, the other square).
On Singing Sands Breton’s Alain Genty on fretless bass does for Celtic music what Jaco Pastorius did for Joni Mitchell and Weather Report, taking an already venerable genre and adding a quality so unique and lyrical we hear a much-loved friend in a whole new way. Genty interprets the complex ornamentation of fiddle tunes in a way that positively soars and swoops, adding whole new layers of texture and harmonics to both traditional and contemporary tunes. I can think of few guitarists who would be able to keep up, let alone complement this inventiveness (a Ralph Towner or Pierre Bensusan maybe). Thankfully we have Tony McManus, who gets co-billing for this CD. Scottish-born, which explains why he’s not in my Irish pantheon, McManus is recognized by his peers as truly great, with no less than John Renbourn calling him indeed the greatest. Effortlessly switching from accompaniment to lead, arpeggios and rhythms cascade forth with mind-numbing speed, and between them, drawing on melodies and ideas from every corner of the Celtic world, Genty and McManus weave tapestries of exquisite lyrical beauty.
Beauty, Exquisite, and Lyrical? Ah, it’s our Kate, Rusby that is. Her latest release, The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly, meaning, on a purely ordinary level, and to our great loss, she hates flying, so if you didn’t catch her brief American tour a few years ago you may have to wing your way to England to catch her live. Fortunately, we have her CDs, and her latest is another stunningly beautiful collection of original and traditional songs, with quirky instrumentation from husband John McCusker and pals Ian Carr and Andy Cutting. Oh yes, and John Doyle, however briefly.
Having won every folk award going, my only beef with the beautiful Kate is that she had the nerve to record “I Wish I Were a Maid Again” at the ripe old age of 24. At least Marianne Faithfull had the grace to wait until she hit 50 or so. And if she’s getting just slightly repetitive, well, so was Vivaldi.
Moving on, to Shooglenifty, a Scottish band with several acclaimed studio albums, their new live album Radical Mestizo captures their act recorded at venues from Scotland to Mexico, and has spawned the term acid-croft for its chemically unbalanced mix of Celtic/World dance grooves. They’re at their best when the traditional order is most apparent, as in the mandolin-driven “Glenuig Hall,” or “Nordal Rumba,” but even at their wildest the roots show, and the powerful mix of every stringed instrument known to man along with percussion is a totally exhilarating experience. If they were the Chieftains it would be about now they’d start lining up celebrity singers to broaden their appeal, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea.
And so to Paul Brady. Always considered one of the great guitar accompanists to renowned fiddlers, and a great performer of traditional Irish songs along with the likes of Andy Irvine and Planxty, Brady made a breakthrough record of original material with Hard Station in 1981, filled with fierce songs of Irish dislocation and history. I, for one, wore out the vinyl. Then Brady took a day job; “Steel Claw” was picked up by Tina Turner for her gazillion-selling album Private Dancer, followed by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Brooks and Dunn — Brady could do no wrong as songwriter to the stars. He continued to record his own albums, but by his own admission they became overproduced and distinctly pop, although they always contained good stuff such as “The Island.” Some traditional work still surfaced in the form of The Liberty Tapes, but it was all a mixed bag, so it was with some trepidation I popped Say What You Feel into the player. Ah, the relief! Danny Thompson kicks in on bass, Brady takes up his acoustic guitar, and John R. Burr’s spare and stylish piano heralds the intro to probably the best album of his career.
Produced by Garry West at Compass, each track is a tasteful, virtuoso display of writing, arranging and musicianship. Brady’s voice has come down a few notches, and ranges from the near gospel of “The You That’s Really You” to the whimsy of “Don’t Try to Please Me.” Apparently horn tracks were laid down but mostly discarded for a more uncluttered sound, but retained for the closing track “The Man I Used to Be,” and rightly so. Viktor Krauss takes over from D.T. on string bass after the third track, and Reese Wynans on Hammond organ augments the self-described White Irish Soul Singer that is the new Paul Brady. Bonnie Raitt guests on “Doin’ It In The Dark.” Now would that be a title for her new album or what?
OK, I’m outta space. Go to www.compassrecords.com and check out their fine catalogue. Wish I’d had room for Sharon Shannon and many more. ♦