Luka Bloom: Salty Heaven
by George Graham
(Shanachie 5739 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/1/99)
The popularity of and interest in Celtic music shows no signs of abating. The revival of traditional music through popular productions like Riverdance and various movie soundtracks, has given rise to a lively musical scene with artists going in different ways -- some staying traditional while others mix Celtic influences with everything from new age to punk. This has inspired lot of performers from Ireland to incorporate some traditional stylistic elements into their sound, regardless of how appropriate.
This week we have the latest CD by an Irish artist who since he began his recording career and came over to this side of the Atlantic, has made conscious effort not to be identified as a Celtic musician, while at the same time, making no attempt to hide his Irish roots: Luka Bloom. His album, his first in five years, is called Salty Heaven.
Luka Bloom's real name is Barry Moore, and he is the younger brother of Christy Moore, one of Ireland's more respected contemporary Celtic musicians, and a founder of Planxty. In 1988, Barry Moore decided to set off to the US to launch his own career, and on the transatlantic plane ride, decided he would take on a whole new persona, partly to get out of ths shadow of his well-known brother. He decided to change his name to Luka Bloom, inspired by Suzanne Vega's song Luka and the James Joyce character Leopold Bloom. He also set out to create a new style -- one based on his acoustic guitar, but with the energy of rock. His early performances on the New York folk scene and in Washington, DC, were widely praised, and he was signed by Warner Bros. Records, which released his impressive 1990 debut called Riverside, an album largely inspired by his move to New York. He followed that with The Acoustic Motorbike recorded in both the US and Ireland, and which featured an interesting folky version of a the L.L. Cool J rap hit I Need Love. After Bloom's mostly solo 1994 album Turf he was dropped by the record label, and moved back to Dublin.
Eventually, he began work on a new recording, starting in Dublin in a studio which closed down during this period, and later hooking up with British producer Peter Van Hooke and Rod Argent, remembered as leader of the Sixties British pop band the Zombies, and later the art rock band Argent. Bloom and company finished the recording in the famous Abbey Road studio in London and came up an album that, from a production standpoint, is Bloom's most interesting yet. There's a wider range of instrumentation, including a string section, which is rather a departure from the spare sound of Bloom's previous recordings, but is generally tastefully done. At the center remain Bloom's thoughtful songs, sung in his gentle brogue, and accompanied by his energetic electro-acoustic guitar.
As was the case on Bloom's previous recordings, Salty Heaven is not a Celtic album, despite the artist's very Irish identity. There are only subtle hints with an occasional flute line or Irish bodhran drum. Some of the lyrics do draw on his home country for their setting, and the long final piece addresses the great Irish migration to North America after the potato famine. Most of the other songs deal with personal relationships, usually in unexpected ways, and there are some less conventional subjects, such as an elegy to an Irish flute player and an apparent protest song about French weapons testing in the Pacific.
Among the musicians appearing on the CD are Argent on the keyboards, Van Hooke on the drums, bassist Mo Foster, and percussionist Jimmy Higgins, along with a number of string and wind players.
The album leads off with Blackberry Time which sounds like the title to a traditional folk song. Bloom's composition, though, is about life's possibilities, and is marked by his distinctive sound, with the energy and musical tension in the arrangements spotlighting his guitar sound, and a few hints of Irish influence. <<>>
One of the more interesting pieces of writing, both musically and lyrically, is The Hungry Ghost. Its somewhat cryptic lyrics are accompanied by a jazzy fretless bass, a spacey electric guitar, and an Irish bodhran drum playing a rhythm vaguely reminiscent of a rumba. <<>>
There are some straight-out love songs. Ciara ("kee-ra") is one of the more attractively melodic, and features a bit more of a pop sound. <<>>
Rainbow Warrior is one of the more unusual pieces. The lyrics, partly in French, are about the Polynesian Islands in the Pacific, and are apparently a protest against French nuclear weapons testing there that took place some time ago. <<>>
Also a departure is Water Ballerina with interesting lyrics which could either be about a woman encountered while swimming on the beach, or perhaps some sea creature. The string section makes its appearance, which is quite a contrast to the usual spare sound of Bloom's CDs. But the arrangement works well. <<>>
Bloom has done songs in the past with spoken lyrics, and he includes one on Salty Heaven. It's called Cool Breeze, and it's an elegy to the late Irish flute player Frankie Kennedy of the band Altan. Though there is an Irish drum providing the rhythm, the arrangement is anything but Celtic. Instead, the electric piano played by Rod Argent sounds surprisingly bluesy. <<>>
Also on the subject of music is Holy Ground, a kind of celebration of the pleasures of making music, and its occasional tribulations. This is really the only instance in which the added production gets out of hand. <<>>
The album ends with its lengthiest piece, Forgiveness, which draws on the Irish migration, in this case, to Canada, as its backdrop. It starts out almost like a dirge... <<>> but later picks up a jig rhythm and turns into a plea for understanding, presumably in Northern Ireland. <<>>
Luka Bloom's new fourth American album Salty Heaven, his first in four years, is a fine recording by a contemporary Irish musician whose style is that of a singer-songwriter first, and an Irishman second. The Celtic influence is subtle, though his native country provides the setting for several of his songs. Bloom's distinctive electro-acoustic guitar sound remains a prominent part of the album, but this is also the most produced-sounding record of his career. With only minor exceptions, producer Peter Van Hooke keeps the added arrangements tasteful. As on his previous releases, Bloom's songs are lyrically exemplary, and his vocals have a good deal of charm. It's the kind of subtle record that rewards repeated listenings, revealing something new each time.
Salty Heaven is also quite good in sound quality. The instrumentation is well-recorded, and the use of reverberant space is quite effective and skillful. The CD also has an uncommonly good dynamic range.
Luka Bloom has spent parts of his musical career on both sides of the Atlantic, and his new CD reflects that mix of influences in a creative and memorable way.
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