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(Compass 4529 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/7/2010)
Celtic music is commonly thought of as being about jigs and reels, with maybe the occasional song about leaving Ireland. This week we have a very nice recording that concentrates on the songs, most of them traditional, from a duo who were founding members of the notably virtuosic Irish-American band Solas. It's Karan Casey and John Doyle, and their new joint CD is called Exiles Return.
Emerging in the mid-1990s, Solas quickly became one of the most respected of the new generation of Celtic bands, displaying remarkable musicianship and musical taste, even though their selection of material was often rather eclectic. Since then, the personnel has been undergoing a some changes, and founding vocalist Karan Casey and guitarist John Doyle departed amicably to pursue their own careers. Ms. Casey has released some five CDs under her own name. Doyle has also been recording individually, but has also kept active working extensively as a studio musician, and more recently touring with and serving as musical director for Joan Baez. He also performs with fiddler Liz Carroll. Doyle and Carroll gave a performance together at the White House for President Obama. Doyle and Casey's paths have crossed several times in the years since they were in Solas, but this is their first full album together. They said they were talking about doing such a joint recording for some seven years now.
It has come to fruition, and the result is quite delightful. It is definitely a recording that emphasizes the songs and their narrative lyrics. The accompaniment is minimal, often just Doyle's acoustic guitar and Ms. Casey's vocal. But his guitar can be a virtual orchestra. The CD was produced by American multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, whose background is in Appalachian folk. Powell lends some banjo and acoustic bass. Occasionally there is also a little flute played by Michael McGoldrick, but overall the sound is sparse, though often striking in its depth.
All of the dozen songs on the fairly generous CD are of Scottish or Irish origin, including, I suppose, the one original on the recording, by John Doyle, who writes of the age-old subject of such ballads, the Irish migration. The traditional songs do tend to run toward the common subjects of old ballads -- unfaithful lovers, murders, soldiers fighting, sailors going off to sea, and of course, for Irish and Celtic songs, death and disasters. There are a couple of songs that are variations on familiar folk songs, in which the story line is somewhat altered. But overall it's the presentation of these songs that makes this recording so special. Both Ms. Casey's often plaintive vocals, and John Doyle's superb guitar work, often providing interesting harmonic variations, set this apart as a memorable recording.
The CD opens with The False Lady, one of a number of songs about an unfaithful lovers. In this case, it's the woman who is the disreputable character, stabbing her lover to death, falsely accusing him of cheating on her. The larger group, such as it is, with bass and flute, appear. <<>>
The title track Exiles Return is the original song by John Doyle, who says that as an Irish native who has spent 18 years in the US, he is in some way the same situation as the Irish immigrants who came to America in search of a better life. It's a great example of the how the simplicity of the performance can be so effective in directing attention to the song. <<>>
Irish emigration is also the subject of the following piece Sailing Off to the Yankee Land. Dirk Powell is heard on the banjo in a style more typical of Appalachian old-time music. <<>>
Doyle does the vocal on the song Sally Grier, another piece about an Irish emigrant, in this case, heading to Canada, and enduring a shipwreck in the process. <<>>
An interesting variation on an old theme is the song called The Little Drummer Girl. Not to be confused with the annoying song that gets played a lot around Christmas time. This one is about a woman who disguises herself as a man to join the army and serves as a drummer. Ms. Casey's liner notes observe that unlike similar stories of women slipping into the army, this protagonist in this story did is just to be a soldier, rather than following a sweetheart. <<>>
As a contrast to the first track, The False Lady, the shoe is on the other foot for the song False Lover John. In this case, the guy is apparently after the girl's wealth. But once again, she does him in. <<>>
There is one a cappella track featuring Ms. Casey. Out of a Window is another of those songs about a lover who goes wrong. In this case, she makes plans to elope with a wealthy suitor, but he doesn't show up at the appointed time. <<>>
The CD ends with The Flower of Finae, a long, sad ballad written in the 19th Century by the Irish poet Thomas Davis. It has all the classic ingredients -- a war, a solder, lovers torn apart, and Ireland. It's beautifully done by Doyle and Ms. Casey. <<>>
Karan Casey and John Doyle's new joint album -- their first extensive recording together since they left Solas -- is a stellar example of the lyrical side of Celtic music, not only in terms of how it sounds, but in terms of what the songs have to day. Ms. Casey has released a series of CDs in this kind of direction, but Doyle's masterful and yet understated guitar work raises the songs to a new level. His vocals are also a welcome addition. It shows how a simple musical setting can help to enhance the power the songs, and it also shows how, in the hands of two excellent musicians, the old songs are given new life and power.
Our grade for audio quality is an A-minus. The acoustic instruments are well-captured, as is Ms. Casey's vocal which is warm and immediate. But you can probably guess what my next comment is -- the relentless force of the mindless volume wars on CD led the mastering engineer to use excessive compression on the CD, degrading the subtlety of the performance. It's beyond me why music like this has to be cranked up loud.
When John Doyle and Karan Casey were in Solas nearly 15 years ago, they played the jigs and reels with impressive panache. Now, back together again for this project, they show the wistful and subtle side of the music. And they do it most impressively.
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